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Turkey earthquake recovery demolition asbestos dust
Turkey earthquake recovery demolition asbestos dust

Recovery personnel digging though the rubble and aerating dust in Hatay, Turkey after the February 2023 earthquake. Image: Shutterstock



How We Uncovered the Asbestos Dangers Lurking in Turkey’s Earthquake Zone

In the wake of the earthquake that rocked Turkey in February 2023, a thick cloud of dust blanketed the landscape around the country’s southern province of Hatay. Amid the debris, a group of children navigated their way, seeking a patch of ground to kick around a soccer ball. Unbeknownst to them, each breath they took was potentially laced with a silent menace: asbestos.

Once hailed as a wonder product, asbestos was used for many decades in the unlikeliest of places — from cigarettes to baby powders, from cars to construction materials. Its resilience against heat, wear, and even chemical corrosion made it a darling of various industries throughout the 20th century.

However, the revelation of the adverse health effects that come from inhaling it prompted over 60 countries, including Turkey, to outlaw its use. Designated as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, asbestos exposure, no matter how minimal, can trigger fatal ailments such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and debilitating respiratory conditions like asbestosis.

When the earthquake struck on February 6, it killed over 53,000 people and displaced millions of people across 11 provinces. According to the World Bank, more than 800,000 buildings were either damaged, demolished, or are now being demolished.

Over a year after the quakes, Hatay remains shrouded in a persistent dust cloud due to inadequate demolition and dust suppression measures.

Many of these structures predate the asbestos ban, and harbor materials like a roofing product known to contain the hazardous mineral. When disturbed, these materials release asbestos fibers into the air, posing a grave risk to public health.

Despite persistent warnings from local residents and NGOs regarding the serious public health hazards stemming from unregulated demolition, debris removal, and waste disposal practices in the province, the authorities seemed to ignore the alarms raised. Time and again, concerns, including those related to asbestos, were dismissed or downplayed.

“We have determined that there is no asbestos in the air,” the then-deputy minister of environment reassured the public a few months after the quake. “Our citizens in the earthquake zone can rest assured; we are working very carefully on asbestos.”

To ascertain the veracity of claims like this, Deutsche Welle (DW)’s Turkish and Environment desks decided to collaborate, embarking on a mission to Hatay to investigate first-hand the extent of the public health threats in the area and to gather scientific evidence to explore the potential risks posed by asbestos exposure in the region.

Partnering with Civil Society Organizations

After speaking to experts and with staff at asbestos analysis laboratories, we realized we would need professional assistance in sample collection and analysis, and opted to collaborate with experts from the Turkish Chamber of Environmental Engineers. This strategic partnership enabled the collection of diverse samples from critical locations and enhanced the credibility of our research efforts by making sure we had reliable analyses.

Analyzing the spread of asbestos involves numerous critical stages that demand expertise. Identifying the materials containing asbestos and determining proper sample collection methods are integral aspects of this process. Additionally, variables such as assessing the impact of wind patterns on sample collection quality must be considered.

Given these complexities, it was unlikely that we, as journalists, would properly collect high-quality samples, potentially leading to inaccurate data analysis. To ensure accurate reporting, we aimed to spotlight the issue by merging our skepticism about official statements on asbestos with precise data analysis.

The assistance of environmental engineers was invaluable in this endeavor. Not only did they aid in sample collection, but they also contributed to study design and provided guidance on safety measures in an environment suspected to be highly contaminated.

In countries like Turkey, where official data can be hard to find or even more difficult to obtain, it is important for both journalists and professional organizations to work together. While the experts bring the technical knowledge, journalists help bring this information to a wider audience, particularly important in a case like this when the public interest is at stake.

on the ground reporting Turkey post-earthquake demolition

Reporters married environmental sample collection with on-the-ground interviews of local people in Hatay, who could be at increased risk of cancer due to exposure to toxic asbestos dust. Image: Courtesy of DW

Reporting on the Ground, in Masks 

Our team journeyed to Hatay and systematically gathered 45 dust samples across six distinct neighborhoods. These samples encompassed dust collected from various sources, including the tops of tents and containers where earthquake survivors were living. We also took samples from local agricultural produce, foliage, fruits, soil, and debris.

To underscore the human dimension of the issue, we complemented the data with the experiences of locals. During our on-the-ground interviews, many residents expressed concerns about the dust — which was constantly in the air — despite being unaware of asbestos prior to our discussions.

Following such a traumatic disaster, many individuals strive to resume a semblance of normalcy. Venturing to a local gym, we spoke with young people during their training sessions. They candidly shared how they could feel their lungs filling with dust during exercise, resulting in increased fatigue.

In another neighborhood, a local businessman was eager to share his experiences since the quake. He quickly showed us his arms and belly, which were full of red dots. He said that they are breathing dust constantly and added: “That’s why our children and us, our mothers and fathers are all sick.”

Following two days of reporting and sample collection on the ground, we took one final dust sample atop our car in Gaziantep, a city situated 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Hatay, en route to our return flight to Istanbul. We wore professional masks as much as we could while in the region, but it was hard in the heat and humidity. We threw our clothes away after the trip, fearing they too could have been contaminated.

The collected samples underwent analysis at an accredited asbestos laboratory. The result was both startling and ominous: 16 out of the 45 samples, more than a third, contained traces of various asbestos types.

dust sample Hatay Turkey asbestos

The DW reporting team collaborated with local environmental engineers to ensure the investigation properly collected evidence of asbestos. Image: Courtesy of DW

This discovery suggests another catastrophe is looming over the hundreds of thousands of people still residing in the area. These survivors have already lost houses, jobs, and loved ones. Our reporting shows the asbestos risk has been amplified in part because the necessary precautions were not taken during the post-earthquake demolition of condemned structures.

The insidious nature of asbestos-induced cancer unfolds over decades, yet the dense dust in the area has already precipitated acute illnesses. According to health experts, children, in particular, face significant risks.

We met Limar Yunusoglu, a 15-year-old Syrian girl who fled the war in Syria to seek refuge in Hatay with her family. Their tent was situated adjacent to a massive rubble dumping site. She shared with us the ordeal of her younger brother falling ill from the dust, telling us there are times when he sleeps for an entire week, devoid of the energy to venture out and play.

The dust sample extracted from the car also underscores a sobering reality. The dangers posed by asbestos extend far beyond the region most impacted by the earthquake. Even individuals residing hundreds of kilometers away are susceptible to asbestos exposure, transported by vehicles and carried by the wind.

What Was the Impact?

We went on to produce a five-article series on the asbestos threat in Turkey. Our research initially focused on the asbestos problem in Hatay, but it quickly became apparent that this issue is a problem in other regions of Turkey. Outside of emergency conditions, like those of the earthquake, our investigation revealed that urban transformation, particularly in Istanbul, poses similar risks due to inadequate demolition practices.

We found that there is an ongoing trade in asbestos, which persists despite the ban, and which prompted us to expand our coverage to a broader context. By showcasing examples from various countries, we aimed to underscore accountability and highlight ways in which this public health problem can be tackled.

demolition dust abatement asbestos

DW’s reporting found that post-earthquake demolition of condemned structures often failed to include dust abatement strategies, increasing the risk of spreading asbestos among the local population. Image: Courtesy of DW

The Istanbul Medical Association honored our asbestos series with its prestigious annual award. The Special Jury Prize was granted “for the comprehensive investigation into the dangers of asbestos, which has once again become a prominent issue, and for shedding light on the potential repercussions of exposure to it in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake.”

Following the initial reporting, numerous media outlets in Turkey also delved into the topic, and many residents took to the streets after our initial coverage, urging authorities to address the problem urgently. Numerous MPs raised questions with the relevant ministries.

Despite inquiries from opposition parties regarding debris removal and measures taken against asbestos hazards in Hatay and the earthquake zone, both the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Health have remained largely silent.

While official monitoring of asbestos presence in the region is lacking, certain governmental data affirm the severity of the dust on air quality more generally. Recent statistics from the Ministry of Environment reveal a troubling trend: the concentration of particulate matter pollutants (PM10) in central Hatay surged from a yearly average of 69 micrograms per cubic meter in 2022 to 96 in 2023.

PM10 refers to any particulate matter in the air with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, which can be inhaled and potentially pose health risks due to its ability to penetrate deep into the respiratory system. The World Health Organization’s recommended limit for PM10 is 15 micrograms per cubic meter — roughly six times lower than the current levels in Hatay.

Such data underscore the urgent need for comprehensive action to address the escalating environmental and health crisis in the region.

Dr. Özkan Kaan Karadağ, a public health and occupational health expert who evaluated our results warned: “In the coming years, we may face deaths of tens of thousands of very young individuals due mesothelioma cases.” While the damage incurred so far may be irreversible, there is still merit, he said, in taking preventive measures now.

“Strict monitoring and general dust suppression measures are urgently needed to eliminate this dust cloud as soon as possible,” he said. “Even though the damage cannot be undone, implementing these measures today will still be beneficial.”

Serdar VardarSerdar Vardar is an investigative journalist with a political science degree from the University of Buenos Aires. After living more than a decade in South America he moved to Germany to cover Turkey and global environmental stories for Deutsche Welle. Vardar was part of ICIJ’s global Pandora Papers and Shadow Diplomats investigations.



Pelin Ünker is an ICIJ member investigative journalist working for Deutsche Welle. Ünker has worked on ICIJ’s Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Implant Files, FinCEN Files, The Ericsson List, Pandora Papers, The Uber Files, and Shadow Diplomats investigations. Her work has included investigations on macro-economic data on the state of the Turkish economy. She has also investigated corruption, tax avoidance and evasion, privatizations, public contracts, and other subjects.

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