Starting this week, the environment page of Asharq Al-Awsat is publishing a series of articles on environmental challenges affecting health in Arab countries, based on chapters in the Health and Environment report recently published by the Arab Environment and Development Forum (AFED ). The report provides the latest information on air, water, waste, the marine environment and climate change. The first air pollution episode, which bases its information on a chapter written by Dr. Hassan Dahini, professor of toxicology and health risk assessment at the American University of Beirut, and Dr. Charbel Afif, researcher of air pollution and climate change and professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Lebanon, and Climate and atmosphere research center in Cyprus.
The industrial revolution that began in the 18th century represents a new era related to air quality, as industrialization and the rapid growth of the world population have led to an increase in the use of fossil fuels to meet growing energy needs, an increase in agricultural activity to ensure global food security , the accumulation of waste, the reduction of forests, all with an impact on air quality and the environment in general.
Indoor and outdoor air pollution is associated with a wide range of acute and chronic health effects, including heart and lung disease and all types of cancer. In addition to its health effects, air pollution can also cause acid rain, poor road visibility and plant damage.
In 2015, the United Nations recognized air pollution as an urgent challenge and set itself the goal of two Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. In Objective 3.9, she called for a significant reduction in the number of deaths and diseases caused by hazardous substances in polluted air, water and soil, and for Objective 11.6 related to In cities, by reducing harmful factors and human impact on the environment, special attention is paid to air quality.
The Health and Environment report, released this year by the Arab Environment and Development Forum (AFED), discusses the main environmental factors that have a significant impact on various aspects of human health in Arab countries, including air pollution, especially as Arab countries are among the the biggest. Globally in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides emissions.
The high road emissions in the Arab region are due to damaged driving, inefficient fuel consumption and poor emission control. Road air quality regulations in most Arab countries are absent or incomplete and incomplete. For example, in Lebanon, there is only control over carbon dioxide, while Kuwait’s regulations are the most complete in the region, and most countries have no regulatory regulations.
Arab air quality indices often exceed WHO guidelines by 5-10 times in some regions. This low quality is due to both natural and human factors. On the one hand, air quality is negatively affected by sea salt and dust particles, and on the other hand, it is related to human activities where emissions concentrate.
The AFED report indicates that emissions in the Middle East and North Africa have increased fivefold over the past three decades due to increased demand for water, energy and transport. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, carbon dioxide emissions increased on average by 6 percent per year between 2005 and 2014, in line with increasing GDP and increased energy consumption.
The dominance of private passenger cars over transport in the Gulf countries doubles congestion problems and increases emissions. Keep in mind that vehicles traveling on public roads in most Middle East and North Africa countries are responsible for 59 percent of the region’s nitrogen oxide emissions, and also produce 90 percent of carbon dioxide and 75 percent of VOCs.
The Arab region suffers from high levels of suspended particles in the air. In Kuwait, the annual average for particles less than 10 microns was eight times the upper limit of WHO standards in 2014-2016. A review of data for several countries in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, shows that concentrations of suspended particles less than 2.5 microns often exceed guidelines set by the World Health Organization. The smaller size of the suspended particles increases the health damage.
In Egypt, for example, road traffic produces about 36 percent of suspended particles smaller than 2.5 microns. In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, 54 percent of the levels of these particles come from dust, sandstorms and oil burning in power plants.
In non-oil producing countries such as Lebanon, other human activities such as industry, road transport and construction sites are an important source of airborne particulate matter. Suspended particle concentrations below 2.5 microns exceed WHO guidelines by up to five times, with overexposure in Egypt and Saudi Arabia due to frequent dust storms.
On the other hand, in 2005–2014 there was an increase in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the range of 3 to 12%, and of sulfur dioxide – from 60 to 120%. It has detected the highest levels of air pollution in oil refineries and ports, and in urban areas in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Since leaded petrol was phased out, more than 175 countries are now unleaded, almost a global elimination. However, this fuel is still used in some Arab countries such as Iraq, Algeria and Yemen. It should be noted that blood lead levels in children are associated with decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties, and learning difficulties.
Many studies conducted in Arab countries show that there is significant indoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution is very high in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries due to the fact that citizens are forced to stay indoors longer due to climatic conditions, continuous operation of air conditioners for long hours, indoor smoking and overcrowding.
Smoking has a significant impact on indoor air quality in Arab countries, especially the prevalence of hookah smoking in confined spaces. Children are more prone to indoor pollution for long hours in unventilated places, such as schools, that do not have adequate heaters or keep the air cool.
The AFED report highlights new developments affecting air quality in the Arab world as the conflict in Syria has reduced the country’s nitrogen dioxide levels by 30 to 40 percent in recent years as a result of a decline in human activity due to displacement. The resettlement to Lebanon resulted in increased emissions and air pollution from road transport, heating, solid waste and electricity generation.
While there are no studies to date on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on air quality and health in the Arab region, an air quality study in 27 countries around the world showed a decline in nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone and suspended particulate matter. Estimates from 2020 indicate that measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus helped avoid 7,400 premature deaths and 6,600 cases of childhood asthma within two weeks of the onset of the lockdown. Regarding the impact of air quality on the epidemic, Corona virus has been shown to spread rapidly in areas with high levels of air pollution, and the health complications of infection are more serious in those areas where polluted air weakens the respiratory system and loses immunity. This explains the spread of injuries in congested city areas with poor air quality rather than their spread and impact on rural areas.
Indoor and outdoor air pollution is associated with increased health risks, such as premature death, heart and lung disease, and cancer. According to the overall disease burden measure, expressed as the number of life years lost due to ill health, disability or premature death, healthy life years lost for every 100,000 Arab citizens due to air pollution reach 5 years in Iraq, 3 years in Libya and Djibouti, and 2 years in Egypt and so on in other countries.
Most respiratory diseases are caused by airborne agents such as bacteria, viruses, chemicals, allergens, gases, and dust particles. Asthma prevalence has generally increased in the Arab world in line with increasing urbanization in recent years. It was also noted that living near sources of air pollution is a risk factor for heart and lung disease.
In a study in Lebanon, living in urban areas close to traffic was associated with lung cancer. Exposure to air pollution, especially nitric oxide, has also been linked to various types of cancer.
Air quality is also affected by global warming, as in recent years the frequency and intensity of dust storms emanating from the large deserts of the Arabian Peninsula have increased and likely caused an increase in mortality, asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The AFED report recommends a series of measures to improve air quality management, including updating the legal framework to define maximum allowable rates of potential fixed and mobile sources of pollution, establishing a network of fixed air quality measurement stations, and taking decisive action to punish polluters by effectively implementing legislation . Conducting air monitoring to ensure quality, creating accurate national emission inventories, establishing priority lists for health risk assessment based on air monitoring, and taking procedural steps to balance pollutant concentrations with the response to health threats.