ROME – The humanitarian disaster wreaked by Israel’s continuing attacks on Lebanon is being compounded by an environmental catastrophe threatening the health of the local population and regional coastlines, experts told a government press conference in Rome yesterday. A «black tide» comprising some 30,000 tons of fuel, released after the bombing of Lebanon’s Jiyyeh power plant last month, has already polluted the Syrian coast and is now approaching the shores of Cyprus and Turkey, Italy’s Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio told the gathering, organized with the support of the Rome-based Information and Communication Center of the Barcelona Convention (INFO/RAC) for the protection of the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, a «toxic cloud» – caused by fuel burned during the bombing – is poisoning the atmosphere over Lebanon and poses a serious health threat to residents, experts warned. Scanio, a member of Italy’s Green Party who has pushed environmental protection up the agenda since Romano Prodi’s coalition government came to power in the spring, has proposed that Italy lead an international task force in Lebanon to clean up the country’s contaminated coastlines. The task force would enter Lebanon without delay upon agreement of a ceasefire, he said. «Everyone remembers the damage suffered by the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s – we should not let such things happen again,» he said. The minister appealed to other regional countries to join Italy in its initiative to clean up Lebanon and called for the implementation of existing treaties aimed at curbing pollution – such as the United Nations’ Barcelona Convention signed more than three decades ago by 21 Mediterranean countries – and the establishment of new pacts. «If we have a convention to protect our antiquities, then we should have one to avert serious environmental threats,» he remarked. The Italian Port Authority has a special radar system allowing it to assess the damage that has been wreaked along coastlines before remedial action can be taken, Scanio said. He noted that Italian ships in the area have already been alerted to offer aid wherever possible. Experts agreed that time is of the essence if the damage that has already been wreaked in and around Lebanon is to be limited. And protecting the health of citizens exposed to these toxic threats is perhaps the greatest challenge of all. «The war zone (of Lebanon) contains real chemical bombs that are ready to explode,» said INFO/RAC Director Sergio Illuminato. Illuminato was referring to residues of power plant emissions – a toxic cocktail of benzene and carcinogenic chemicals – that have turned much of Lebanon’s coastline black over the past weeks. These residues have ruined the beautiful beaches that once attracted droves of tourists to Lebanon’s shores and will prove to be yet another barrier when the war-torn country starts picking up the pieces when hostilities cease, Illuminato said. «Lebanon had largely rebuilt its economy on its seaside tourism so this is a real blow,» he explained. But a more pressing concern is the serious health risk faced by some 3 million people living in the region affected by the «black tide.» According to a report prepared by INFO/RAC, which notes the detection of fuel residues as far north as Cyprus, the potential health risks include cancer, hormonal imbalances and a weakening of the immune system. A parallel threat to residents are the toxic benzene fumes that were released during the power station bombing, according to INFO/RAC Communication Officer Simonetta Lombardo. «Inhabitants of Beirut have been the first to inhale these benzene fumes. Contact with these fumes can increase the risk of cancer,» she said. The potentially lethal impact of this toxic matter is already quite clear following sightings of thousands of dead fish washed up on Lebanese shores, Illuminato said. The fuel spill is also threatening marine turtles nesting along the Lebanese coastline, he said. Experts expressed concern of this threat spreading further afield in view of the «semi-closed» nature of the Mediterranean which «traps in» pollution. But the long-term destructive consequences of the toxic fuel slick creeping northward through the Mediterranean are still unclear, according to Silvano Focardi, an eco-toxicologist from the University of Siena. «The widespread metabolic changes and the carcinogenic effects of this disaster will not be immediately evident to us but they cannot be underestimated,» he said. Turks reassure about oil slick ANKARA (AFP) – Turkey claimed yesterday that the oil pollution in the eastern Mediterranean caused by the Israeli bombing of a Lebanese power plant posed little threat to its coastline but environmentalists were more cautious. An emergency unit set up by the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the risk of the oil reaching Turkish beaches was «fairly limited.» «We believe that the pollution should not touch Turkey but all the same we are taking precautions,» an official said. Turkish aircraft are flying reconnaissance missions while the navy is ready to set up floating barriers, he said. An oil slick, caused by the destruction of the Jiyyeh power utility 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Beirut on July 14 and 15, has arrived on Syria’s coast after affecting up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Lebanese coastline. An estimated 15,000 tons of fuel oil poured into the sea. Both environmentalists and the Lebanese authorities believe that the spill could be the greatest ecological disaster in history to hit the Mediterranean and could affect the entire east of the region. The environmentalist organization Greenpeace has painted a more somber picture of the consequences of the spill, suggesting currents and winds could wash the oil toward Cyprus and Turkey. «There is still a possibility that the oil will reach the Turkish coast,» said Basma Badran of Greenpeace’s Lebanese branch, who is currently in Istanbul. She estimated that up to 35,000 tons of oil could have been spilled into the sea.