Two-year old Ibrahim, who lives with his family near one of Karbala’s bricks factories, has developed bouts of severe coughing. His mother and father work in the factory, which produces bricks used in construction
Ibrahim suffers from breathing difficulties and frequent coughing bouts. Layla Khalil, Ibrahim's mother said that she is obliged to take her son with her to the factory because there is no place where she can leave him during her working hours.
Ibrahim's family is one of 20 families living within 400 meters from the brick factories around Karbala city, Southeast of Baghdad. Most of these families, including children, work in these factories.
Bricks are made of mud or clay mixed with sand and water. The mixture is then poured into special molds and heated in ovens operated by heavy, black oil. This oil when burnt produces contaminated gases, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide.
The factory produces bricks all day long with no interruptions. Layla and her husband work for long hours every day in order to ensure that enough bricks are produced.
For every 1,000 pieces produced, a worker is paid 30,000 Iraqi Dinars (US$25). The market price of these can reach up to US$170.
Dr. Adel Muhei Hussein, the deputy director of the Karbala health directorate, said, "It is only natural that people who inhale the gases emitted or those who are exposed to the carbon particles, will develop respiratory problems."
The natural percentage of carbon monoxide in the human body ranges between 0.08% and 0.3%, and the highest concentration tolerated by the human body of this gas is (0.5) mg / m 3. Any increase above this ratio may cause serious damage to the respiratory system and impede the absorption of oxygen. The symptoms are breathing difficulties and coughing, "such as those suffered by Ibrahim," according to Hussein.
Abdul-Hussein came with his family from al-Qadisiya province to work in one of the brick factories. He couldn't find any better job in his city. Abdul-Hussein told Niqash that "all workers suffer from the smoke emitted during production. In addition, there is no clean drinking water, and most of the workers drink and use contaminated agricultural water stream near their houses.
Ahmed Abdul Razak, one of the factory's workers, said that "there are some families who cannot buy clean water all the time because the price constitutes an additional economic burden."
Relevant health and environment departments in Karbala do not have accurate figures on water or air pollution emitted from the bricks factories. Eng. Haydar Fuad, director of the Karbala Environment Directorate, said that the toxic gases produced by these factories “place them on top of all sources of pollution in the province."
He added, "these factories are using heavy black oil which emits dense gases when burned. They burn these gases over a number of hours and with every burning operation."
The first brick factories were built in Iraq in the 1970s. The area of the burring room is not more than 20 square meters, and each room contains a chimney which is erected to emit the gases produced. Before burning them, the bricks are put in special places to clean them of impurities. Afterwards, they are burned to become stronger and to endure the different climatic conditions.
In these primitive factories there are no proper ventilators. Officials and human rights activists have started to voice their concerns over the existence of such factories.
Eng. Haydar Fuad explained that among the gases emitted from the use of black oil in these factories is the sulphur dioxide. Its presence in the air in large quantities causes, after mixing with water vapor, what is known as acid rain.
According to Fuad, some field studies have revealed that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by these factories is 4 times higher than the internationally acceptable rates of -0.1 mg / litre permitted in the workplace, according to US standards.
"Many families live near these factories or work in them and many go into the burning rooms and endanger their health," said Fuad.
Bushra Hassan, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of the Karbala Provincial Council, strongly criticized those responsible for child labour at the factories. She said that some of the working children are aged between 10 and 13 years-old.
Iraq’s labour law bans children under the age of 18 from working. It also puts restrictions on children's entry to work places that may endanger their health.
"There are dozens of young people who work in these factories and others who go with their parents and don't receive any care. Employers are usually the owners of these factories and they don't provide their workers with any legal guarantees. They leave them vulnerable to extortion and exploitation," says Hassan.
Ashour added that the provincial council “is not able to curb this phenomenon because there are no alternatives; we can't tell the people that their working conditions are bad and that they should stop this work themselves and not allow their children to practice it. If we do so, we must offer people some other solutions or alternatives."
Ashour stressed that the government is determined to remove these factories from around the city to other places in order to reduce pollution. She added that a special committee has been formed for this purpose.
Ali Yassin, the owner of one of these factories, said that working conditions are very tiresome but there are no alternatives. The factories are very old and they operate by using old production techniques.
"I am not responsible for what is happening to children," said Yassin, "they help their parents in some easy tasks such as carrying the bricks from one place to the other. I can't tell them what to do and what not to do. It is their parents' responsibility to do so."