BEIRUT: Pollution caused mostly by car emissions in the capital can reach levels as high as two thirds over the global limit, increasing respiratory problems and the long-term risk of developing lung cancer, a newly published study has found. “The results are alarming and show that Beirut witnesses chronic pollution,” the study’s authors said.
The need for Lebanon to fundamentally overhaul its traffic policy to fix the degraded air quality is “very urgent,” said Nada Badaro-Saliba, a lecturer in the geography department at Université Saint-Joseph and one of the leading authors of the study.
The scientists measured levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere throughout Beirut. The results were published in late July.
They collected data on emissions from 52 machines that sampled the air quality throughout the city over 24 weeks in 2010. Three of the samplers are still in operation and show that the levels of pollution have not declined since the measurements were taken.
Nitrogen dioxide levels averaged 53 micrograms per cubic meter, and reached as high as 67 in the most polluted areas of central Beirut. The global limit set by the World Health Organization is 40.
The western part of Beirut, along the seashore, experienced the lowest rates of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which were still higher than the safe global limit. The highest rate was in the heart of Beirut.
Nitrogen dioxide pollution is primarily caused by emissions from cars, trucks and power plants.
It is also a precursor to ground-level ozone, a form of smog that can damage the lungs and sensitive vegetation.
Nitrogen dioxide has been linked to respiratory diseases, and some studies say long-term exposure contributes to lung cancer risk.
Beirut is particularly vulnerable because of its “anarchic urban development,” which features tall buildings and narrow streets that trap pollutants, the scientists said.
The capital is also sparse in green spaces, which make up just 3 percent of its area. The hills surrounding the city and the sea breeze from the Mediterranean also blow pollutants toward the center of the city.
The damage to lung health caused by the nitrogen dioxide emissions is more pronounced for vulnerable populations, including old people, children and individuals with lung problems such as asthma.
People who live near thoroughfares and streets are even more exposed to pollutants. The results of the experiment show the levels of background nitrogen dioxide, so individuals on the street are likely breathing in even higher levels of pollutants.
Badaro-Saliba said one immediate measure that can be taken is to improve air quality near the most vulnerable members of the population.
As an example, she said traffic could be limited near schools to avoid exposing children to emissions all day long.
But experts say there is little that can be done to fix the problem short of a fundamental overhaul of Lebanon’s environmental policy.
In addition to a lack of public transport and chronic traffic jams, Lebanon is in the throes of political paralysis that relegates environmental policy to a lower priority than resolving the country’s intractable political disputes.
“They’re not really interested in all of the environmental problems,” Badaro-Saliba said.
She said the next step that is needed is to investigate the link between high pollution and rising cancer levels.
Nadim Kanj, a specialist in diseases that affect the respiratory system at AUB Medical Center, said such illnesses are definitely on the rise.
He said nitrogen dioxide, along with an array of other particles and pollutants, contribute to the problems, but he lays the blame primarily on smoking, following by pollutants in the air.
“The triggers around us and the pollutants are innumerable,” he said.
While pollutants cannot be said to cause lung diseases, they definitely exacerbate the symptoms, Kanj said.
“These pollutants definitely trigger or worsen or exacerbate current diseases,” he said.
Kanj agreed there are few options available to solve the problem. He also mentioned the lack of public transport and the low quality fuel used in cars, as well as the lack of legislation on environmental issues and air quality.
“There is nothing that we can do at this stage,” he said. “This is a pretty bad problem.” – K.S.