WHO: Qatar’s polluted air is harmful to residents’ health

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Wojciech Kowalski/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

William Brawley/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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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HMC/Facebook

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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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Raja Raman/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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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Ricky Majit/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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.

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