Browsing 'pollution' News

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Peter Kovessy / Doha News

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With reporting from Riham Sheble

Air pollution levels in the Middle East have “zero” effect on the health of residents, Qatar’s environment ministry has said in response to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The study, Ambient air pollution: A global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, analyzed the effect of outside air pollution on residents’ health in 103 countries.

It included data that showed Qatar has the second highest average levels of PM2.5 particles in its air, behind Saudi Arabia.

According to the report:

“Small particle pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations – indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.”

However, the Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME) said this week that “nothing” in the report “correlates air quality and its effect on health and mortality rates” in Qatar.

The MME said that it was issuing its statement in response to stories “circulating across social media networks” about the report.

Health impact

According to WHO’s data, there are few pollution-linked deaths in Qatar.

Additionally, the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death after exposure to air pollution in Qatar are in the middle range of all countries listed – not the bottom.

Based on this, the MME said that poor quality air has “zero impact” on the health of Qatar residents.

An ambulance parked outside Hamad Hospital in Doha

Brian Candy / Flickr

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It remains unclear why Qatar’s high pollution levels don’t correlate to high levels of early death and/or disease.

However, it’s possible the country’s PM2.5 particles are less harmful than those found elsewhere in the world because they are partly formed in the desert.

In its statement, the MME emphasized this, saying:

“Environmental monitoring management indicates that the Middle East region has high rates of density in terms of dust spread, as a result of its nature, fast winds and vast desert spaces.”

Speaking to Doha News, WHO environmental specialist Dr. Annette Prüss-Ustün agreed that desert dust accounts for some of Qatar’s PM2.5 readings.

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However, she added that the effects of desert dust on health remain “less well understood.”

And while the exact composition of the particles in Qatar’s air remains unknown, recent research suggested that only half of PM2.5 particles in the region come from the desert.

The other half are derived from industrial sources like car exhausts and factories.

‘Not air pollution’

The MME also said that the data shown in the report, which assessed average annual levels of PM2.5 particles, did not constitute “air pollution.”

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But Prüss-Ustün disputed this, telling Doha News there is a definite link between particulate matter and air pollution.

“It is correct that what WHO is reporting is particulate matter,” she said this week.

“However particulate matter is an indicator of air pollution, actually the most widely used one, and is the best indicator for estimating health impacts.”

The WHO report’s authors said that they had chosen to focus primarily on PM2.5 particles as these are “highly relevant” in measuring the impact of pollution on health.

Rankings question

The MME also took issue with Qatar’s ranking as one of the most polluted countries in the world.

It pointed out that WHO’s report did not specifically rank countries by their levels of pollution.

This is true; in an FAQ accompanying its report, the WHO explained that its policy is not to assess nations in this way, because people within countries are “unevenly exposed to air pollution” depending on where they live.

Annual mean ambient PM2.5 pollutant map

WHO

Annual mean ambient PM2.5 pollutant map

However, data tables contained in the report clearly showed that Qatar’s PM2.5 reading is the second highest of all nations.

And an accompanying interactive map is designed so that readers can see at a glance which countries and regions are the most polluted.

No public data

The MME concluded by saying it has an “action plan” that has been in place since 2014.

This involved upgrading hardware and introducing 22 mobile air monitoring stations, in addition to three fixed stations across Qatar.

These stations allow the government to “follow up and monitor air quality.”

However, Qatar does not share any of this data with the public.

The MME has not responded to requests for comment. Here is its full statement:

Translation: An official at the Ministry of Municipality and Environment has made an announcement in response to what has been circulating across social media networks, regarding Qatar’s ranking among world countries in the field of air quality and pollution.

What was published on the World Health Organization’s website was a table showing the concentration levels of particulate matter in air levels, not air pollution. The countries’ rankings for air pollution were not released by the organization (but) were circulated by some parties via social media networks.

The ministry has also clarified that the updated table for the year 2016 concerning the concentration levels of fine particles in the air has revealed that the state of Qatar ranks 41st among countries when it comes to the concentration levels of particulate matter (dust).

The World Health Organization has also made it clear on its website that any ranking or comparison made between countries regarding air pollution should not be made acceptable, due to to differences in geographic location, time period, ways of measurement, population density and lack of sufficient and clear data.

The environmental sector – the environmental monitoring management – indicates that the Middle East region has high rates of density in terms of dust spread, as a result of its nature, fast winds and vast desert spaces.

There was also no indication in the recent report by the World Health Organization that correlates air quality and its effect on health and mortality rates, as the referred table shows the zero impact of dust on low mortality cases in the region.

The Ministry of Municipality and the Environment has devised an action plan since 2014 that includes upgrading hardware and means of monitoring fine particles and pollution to directly monitor air quality through the ministry’s monitoring stations.

These include three fixed and upgraded stations, and 22 environmental monitoring mobile stations spread across the country, in which its affiliates coordinate with to follow up and monitor air quality.

Thoughts?

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Air pollution in Qatar vastly exceeds safe limits and is damaging the health of the population, a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has found.

The study, Ambient air pollution: A global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, analyzed the effect of ambient (outside) pollution on residents’ health in 103 countries.

“Air pollution represents the biggest environmental risk to health,” WHO said. “In 2012, one out of every nine deaths (globally) was the result of air pollution-related
conditions.”

The report concluded that Qatar has the second highest levels of PM2.5 particles in the world, behind Saudi Arabia.

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These types of particles are small and fine, making it easier to affect the respiratory system and thus particularly dangerous to health.

Qatar’s urban areas contain an annual average of 105 ug/m3 of PM2.5 particles, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 127 ug/m3, the world’s most polluted country by this measure.

By contrast, the UAE average was around 64 ug/m3.

According to WHO guidelines, annual average PM2.5 values should not exceed 10 ug/m3.

A global model

To calculate the new pollution statistics, the WHO used data from ground measuring stations and combined it with information collected from satellites.

This allowed it to get an up-to-date picture on the current levels of pollution in each country.

It then created an interactive map that shows the modeled (estimated) pollution levels across the world.

Annual mean ambient PM2.5 pollutant map

WHO

Annual mean ambient PM2.5 pollutant map

Qatar’s section of the map is shaded in the darkest color, meaning that its annual average PM2.5 rates are in the highest category.

WHO’s most recent ground-measured pollution data for Qatar is from 2012.

This information showed that Doha had the 12th highest average levels (93 ug/m3) of PM2.5 of all world cities. The town of Al Wakrah to the south ranked 25th on the same list (85 ug/m3).

However, the satellite showed a grimmer picture.

It stated that Qatar’s urban areas – Doha and Al Wakrah combined – now have an annual average of 105 ug/m3, a significant increase from four years ago.

This could be explained in part by the country’s building boom.

Health impact

The report’s authors said that they chose to focus primarily on PM2.5 particles as these are “highly relevant” for measuring the impact of pollution on health, which is an increasing concern for scientists and medical professionals.

“Exposure to air pollutants can affect human health in various ways, leading to increased mortality and morbidity. Today, air pollution is the largest environmental risk factor,” the report said.

PM 2.5 particles – which often cannot be seen with the naked eye – are made up of heavy metals and toxic organic compounds.

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Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

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They can originate from vehicle exhausts, smelting plants and the burning of organic materials, as well as from desert dust.

According to the US Department of Health, exposure to fine PM2.5 particles can cause a range of health problems, both short and long-term.

They include coughing, shortness of breath, chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function, lung cancer and heart disease.

Furthermore, recent research has shown that these particles can reach the human brain, potentially causing diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Not many deaths in Qatar

Although Qatar’s pollution readings are some of the worst in the world, the number of deaths attributed to poor air quality is not as high, according to the report.

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WHO gauged the impact high levels of pollution have on the health of residents in countries around the world by estimating how many people will die from certain diseases as a result of the pollution around them.

These illnesses include:

  • Acute lower respiratory infections;
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
  • Stroke;
  • Ischeamic heart disease; and
  • Lung cancer

In Qatar, WHO said that 31 out of every 100,000 people will die as a direct result of pollution from one of the health problems listed above.

This a significantly lower figure than fellow polluted countries like Saudi Arabia (67) and Egypt (77.)

However, it is higher than nearby UAE (28), and much higher than countries like the UK (13) and the US (7).

Quality of life

Similarly, Qatar’s figures for disability-adjusted life years (DALY) – the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death after exposure to air pollution – is also in the middle range of all countries listed.

Residents in Qatar apparently lost 759 years to disability per 100,000 residents in 2012. This is compared to 1,438 in Saudi Arabia, and 3,151 in the worst country on the list, Turkmenistan.

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However, Qatar again fared poorly compared to the UAE (624 hours) the UK (291) and the US (176.)

Although Qatar’s statistics do not appear to show a huge negative impact from pollution,  the WHO report makes clear that the health effects of PM 2.5 particles are felt wherever they are present:

“Small particle pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations – indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed,” the report said.

It remains unclear why Qatar’s high pollution levels don’t correlate to high levels of early death and/or disease.

However, it’s possible the country’s PM2.5 particles could be less harmful than others found elsewhere in the world, as they are at least partly formed in the desert.

Sources of pollution

The origin of PM2.5 particles is important, because some are thought to be more harmful than others.

A breakdown of what comprises Qatar’s particles is not available, but recent research that looked at the sources of PM2.5 in the Middle East as a whole suggested that around half of the particles came from the desert.

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This may mean that Qatar’s air pollution levels, while still worrying, may not cause as many health problems as the bare statistics suggest.

Speaking to Doha News, WHO environmental specialist Dr. Annette Prüss-Ustün said that the effect of breathing in desert dust particles is not well understood at present:

“PM2.5 particles may come from desert dusts, and health impacts of those are less well known than those of human origin,” she said.

Qatar does not make daily pollution readings available to the general public.

Thoughts?

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Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

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High air pollution like that seen in Doha may contribute to the development of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, scientists have found.

That’s because magnetite nano-particles – minuscule spheres of a toxic mineral – have been found in the brains of people exposed to significant air pollution, according to new research from the UK’s Lancaster University.

Lead scientist Prof. Barbara Maher said these particle are involved in the production of free radicals in the brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

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In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released data suggesting that Doha’s air is some of the most polluted in the world.

It concluded that Doha had the 12th highest average levels (93 ug/m3) of PM2.5 – small and fine particles that are particularly dangerous to respiratory health. Al Wakrah (85 ug/m3) ranked 25th on the same list.

Maher’s research focused on people living in Mexico City and Manchester.

However, she told Doha News this week that very high levels of small particles in Qatar’s air meant that residents here would likely be even more affected:

“If you’ve got very high PM2.5 values (in your air), you have a very good chance of having these particles in it. It is possible that Doha has a bigger problem than Mexico City,” she said.

The finding is a depressing one for residents, as local researchers have recently linked chronic exposure to environmental toxins found in Qatar’s desert and brain diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s link

Although magnetite can be produced in small quantities by the body itself, the particles Maher found were shaped differently, and characteristic of particles produced externally.

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She described her findings as a “smoking gun” – a discovery that will pave the way for further research into possible links between this type of pollution and brain diseases:

“Now we need to find out who is going to be most vulnerable, and whether they show increased rates of Alzheimer’s.

We would like more funding so that we can make a lot more progress a lot more rapidly to answer the new questions that arise.”

Sources of pollution

Magnetite is often produced by vehicle engines. The particles are produced by heat in the engine and in the exhaust, and by the heating that occurs when brake pads undergo friction.

This means that Qatar’s busy roads are a potential source of the particles.

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They are also a by-product of certain industrial processes, like gas flares, Maher said, as well as open fires.

“Iron is a contaminate in these fuels, so if you burn these fuels, you release the carbon if the temperature right,” she told Doha News.

Reducing exposure

Maher said reducing exposure to the particles is a “very difficult” problem for authorities in countries with high levels of pollution.

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Sanjiban Ghosh/Flickr

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But she added that the solution lies in both new legislation and new technology:

“Of course anything that’s known to be emitting large volumes of particulates – vehicles and industrial processes – that’s what legislation should be for.

And you need new technology and new processes to reduce the exposure.”

She also said that individuals’ ability to reduce their exposure to the particles was limited, as masks have no effect.

But changing your route to work or school so that it doesn’t involve sitting in traffic on major roads could help.

Thoughts?