AMMAN: Three children died and dozens of residents were poisoned in the opposition-held eastern suburbs of Damascus since Wednesday, medical sources told Syria Direct, after besieged residents “rushed” to purchase and consume what they thought was relatively cheap table salt.
Approximately 30 residents in the East Ghouta town of Zamalka were treated for symptoms including vomiting and severe abdominal pain on Wednesday night after consuming a “poisonous substance” resembling table salt, Dr. Walid Awata, director of the local hospital which received all of the patients, told Syria Direct on Thursday. Three children died during treatment, he said.
Salt is an expensive treat in East Ghouta, where a suffocating Syrian government siege that began in 2013 has left the enclave’s estimated 400,000 residents facing severe food shortages and skyrocketing prices amid waves of bombardment by pro-government forces.
Due to the siege, many East Ghouta residents are “consuming expired food, animal fodder and refuse,” according to a World Food Programme assessment published earlier this week. Others go days without eating.
The prices of basic goods—such as sugar and salt—in East Ghouta are similar to “the price of gold,” Fayez Araabi, spokesperson for the opposition’s Directorate of Health in Damascus and Rural Damascus told Syria Direct on Thursday.
A child receives treatment for poisoning at a hospital in Zamalka on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.
“People have been forced to seek out any substitute to the [usual] foods they eat,” he said. “Many are turning to items that were stored improperly or in unhealthy conditions.”
So, when residents heard that a local salesman was offering salt at nearly half the usual price, “they rushed to get some,” Zamalka hospital director Awata said, adding that one kilo of salt in the town is currently selling for SP7,000 [about $14].
On Wednesday, 24-year-old resident Wael heard that a kilo of salt was being sold for nearly half its usual price: SP4,000 [about $8]. He eagerly bought a few grams to bring home to his mother, who used it to cook a meal of rice. Wael was the first to eat, as his mother was fasting.
“I immediately began to vomit,” he told Syria Direct on Thursday. “I felt like my guts were going to burst.”
The substance that Wael and dozens of other residents bought and consumed was later determined through medical analysis to be sodium nitrite that had been mixed with salt, said Health Directorate spokesman Araabi.
Although sodium nitrite is found in meat preservatives and can be used to treat cyanide poisoning, it is also toxic to humans in large quantities.
A poisoned child at a hospital in Zamalka on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.
Zamalka Hospital director Awata said all of the patients who came into his hospital Wednesday night had purchased salt from the same salesperson.
“The seller has been arrested and is under investigation,” he added, “so that we can learn the circumstances of what happened and how he acquired this substance.”
After Wael fell ill, his family took him to the Zamalka Hospital, where he says he lost consciousness. On Thursday morning, he woke up in stable condition.
But not all of those who consumed what they thought was salt were as lucky.
Um Ahmad, another Zamalka resident, says she was thrilled when she found a few grams of salt to purchase on Wednesday—she had been searching for days.
“There isn’t a street I didn’t walk through or a storekeeper I didn’t ask as I tried to find salt to feed my family,” she told Syria Direct on Thursday. “Sugar we can do without, but salt is a must.”
Umm Ahmad bought the same cheap “salt” on Wednesday and used it to cook a meal for her family.
After feeding her six-year-old son that night however, she says she saw his skin color began to change and his lips grew pale. She immediately took him to the emergency room.
Her son didn’t survive the night.
Um Ahmad also experienced poisoning symptoms after the meal, but was quickly released from care.
“It didn’t affect me much,” she said, noting that, under siege conditions, she had grown accustomed to eating just a few bites.
“I gave my portion to my son.”