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An Arab Researcher Seeks Solutions to Urban Pollution

BEIRUT—A Lebanese scientist is suggesting some simple remedies, such as encouraging the scrapping of older cars, to ease the intense air pollution that Beirut and other Arab cities suffer from.

The air pollution in Beirut is 3.2 times higher than the recommended safe level, and in Greater Cairo it is 11.7 times higher, according to the BreatheLife 2030 campaign, a joint initiative of the World Health Organization and other nongovernmental agencies.

The campaign looks at the concentration of very small, health-damaging particles in the air as a measure of pollution. Levels higher than 10 micrograms per cubic meter are considered unsafe.

While transportation and industry are among the major sources of air pollution in urban areas, Arab cities in or near deserts have the additional problem of large volumes of sand and dust that get swept into the air. Abu Dhabi’s pollution level exceeds the safe limit by 6.1 times and Muscat’s by 3.5 times.

Los Angeles and Beirut

Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, measured her city’s air pollution and asked a colleague in Los Angeles to do the same. The comparisons allowed her to make several suggestions that could improve the air quality in Beirut and other Arab cities.

“Both cities have heavy traffic by relying on cars for transportation. The climates are similar and so is the topography,” says Saliba. “But California has heavy regulation on air pollution and Beirut has almost none.”

“We wanted to see if the level of particles would change in a regulated environment,” she says.

Saliba placed sensors just off a freeway north of Beirut during July and August of last year. She chose summer because the climate then is less variable than in winter and weather conditions are closer to those in Los Angeles.

The same sampling was done in Los Angeles.

“We were collecting data on the chemical composition of the air. We measured all the potentially toxic gases,” says Constantinos Sioutas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California who collaborated with Saliba.

“The results showed seven times more toxic components in Beirut’s air compared to Los Angeles,” says Saliba.

The biggest source of pollution in most cities is car exhaust, according to Saliba, but Beirut also has a secondary problem. Frequent power outages mean that many individuals and business have diesel generators that emit a variety of toxic air contaminants and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Air pollution isn’t a uniquely Arab problem. New Delhi’s air, for example, is 14.3 times more polluted than the recommended safe level. Cities in developed nations also struggle. Paris is 1.4 times over the recommended safe level and Berlin is 1.7 times over.

Reducing air pollution is “clearly an issue that goes beyond just wealth,” says Sioutas. “There needs to be political will and a culture that readily accepts environmental regulation like there is in California.”

Both Sioutas and Saliba agree that their results show that environmental regulations work, and based on their findings they have some recommendations for Beirut and other cities in the Arab world that suffer from poor air quality.

“We have an old car fleet here in Lebanon,” says Saliba. “The average car is 19 years old. That means old technology and more pollution.”

That’s why she advises a scrappage system, in which the government would pay motorists to scrap old cars, taking them off the roads. She also wants the government to increase restrictions on the age of imported secondhand cars. Currently cars up to 8 years old can be imported for sale on the Lebanese used-car market. Saliba would like to see the maximum age reduced to 5 years.

Arab cities could also build or expand public transportation, particularly electrically powered subways, or improve the reliability of electricity generation, but Saliba says she tries to keep her recommendations achievable. “We could have a dream list of things if we had more money and political will,” she says, “but we want to stay realistic.”

Pollution and Disease

When it comes to politicians, Saliba says they often pay lip service, but rarely follow through. In the hope of finding even more persuasive evidence to push politicians to action, she has teamed up with Kamal Badr, a professor of medicine at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. The pair are collaborating on a study that they hope will show an association between air pollution and medical-center patients who are dying prematurely from vascular disease or damage to the blood vessels.

More than 5.5 million people worldwide die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution, according to research. The BreatheLife campaign also found that approximately 67,000 Egyptians die every year due to air pollution and 3,000 die of the same cause in the less populous Lebanon.

Badr and Saliba hope to document the correlation between air pollution and health in more detail.

“We are working together to see what the main driver of vascular disease is among the Lebanese population,” says Badr. “We are conducting studies that correlate vascular injury documented here in my hospital with the pollution levels in the neighborhoods where the patients live.”

They have preliminary results that do show a significant correlation between higher levels of pollution and rates of vascular disease, but Badr stresses that it’s too early to draw firm conclusions.

When the pair get more concrete results, they hope the combination of environmental and medical data will finally motivate politicians to make changes that could improve air quality—a goal that has thus far eluded Saliba.


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