October 14, 2011 12:45 AM
By Olivia Alabaster
The Daily Star
Traffic is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in Beirut with over 400,000 cars entering the capital each day.
Traffic is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in Beirut with over 400,000 cars entering the capital each day.

BEIRUT: As the temperatures begin to fall and the summer tourists and their SUVs drive out of town, you might expect that thick level of smog hanging over Beirut to dissipate.

But experts are warning that air pollution actually gets much worse in the fall, and virtually the only way to improve the situation is to introduce public transport.

As there is very little industry located in Lebanon’s capital, traffic fumes are the major source of air pollution in the city, according to Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut who helped create a three year joint study into the issue between AUB and University Saint Joseph.

“Our streets have become very narrow, so pollution can stagnate for a long time or it circulates in a closed environment for some time before dissipating,” Saliba explained.

Whereas the heat of the summer actually helps bring pollutants above the city, the lower temperatures of fall and winter trap them in the city.

“And each time you emit more pollutants you are increasing the level of pollutants already there,” Saliba says, so the total level of dangerous particles in the Beirut atmosphere keeps increasing throughout the season.

A USJ study last year found that Beirutis are at high risk of exposure to dangerous air particles 94 percent of the time.

Desert storms coming in from the Sahara also increase at this time of year, and contribute to air pollution levels in Lebanon’s capital.

“Air pollution becomes much more acute when we have desert storms,” Saliba explains.

“A few days ago we had a gloomy day and then it rained hail, but before the rain we had a localized, desert storm, trapped within the boundaries of the region. And we measured 500 micrograms of Particulate Matter in Beirut,” she added.

The yearly average in Beirut is 20 micrograms, which is already double the World Health Organization maximum recommended level.

The rain that normally follows a sand storm does help in reducing the level of pollution in Beirut, as does wind, but this weather system is usually cyclical throughout the fall and winter.

“Now if there are frequent sand storms, which you can see when we have gloomy weather, we will enter a bad period,” Saliba says. The storms basically represent high levels of soil and dust being blown in from the Sahara desert.

Driving down from the mountains into Beirut you can often literally see this layer of smog hanging over the city, Saliba says, which you don’t see in the summer.

The forthcoming months, the coldest times, when there is no wind, will witness the highest levels of air pollution.

This air pollution has consequences for people’s health, leading to weak lung growth in children and an inability to fight respiratory diseases, such as asthma and cardiovascular diseases.

Saliba is keen to work more closely with medical experts in order to collate concrete evidence on the direct link between exposure to air pollution in Beirut and hospital admissions for certain illnesses.

Saliba believes the only way to realistically tackle air pollution in the capital is by reducing the widespread reliance on cars: calculations by her department point to a minimum of 400,000 cars coming into the capital every single day.

As existing bus networks are minimal, unreliable and not well connected, car usage is higher than ever, as more people come into the capital to work and finance schemes have made it increasingly easy to buy a car.

The public and civil society must increase pressure on the government to demand an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, Saliba believes. “It’s our responsibility to demand clean air. It affects everyone.”

For Rayan Makarem, a campaigner for Greenpeace Lebanon, the implementation of a public transport system will take several years, so it is vital to start pressurizing the government now.

“At Greenpeace we are part of [a] coalition, the National Campaign for Sustainable Transport, and we are lobbying government and trying to get a proper traffic law and public transport introduced,” he says.

Makaren believes many people would jump on the chance to use public transport, if that option existed.

“People often tell us that if they had the option to take a bus or train, they would,” he says.

He finds it difficult to acknowledge that Beirut’s current public transport system even deserves the title.

“The system we have now is very chaotic, there’s no vision,” he says. “Ideally we need a central hub for trains, and then outlying bus stations, and then as a last resort, taxi stations.” He also advocates the creation of pedestrian areas, such as Hamra street, which would become totally car free.

But while a public transport system may be some 10 years off, he estimates, there are some steps that individuals can take to help reduce air pollution.

As diesel generators also contribute to the problem, it is important to be as energy efficient as possible, Makaren says. So turn off that TV on standby, use the stairs instead of the elevator, or consider installing a solar water heater.

In terms of transport, Makaren suggests cycling, or walking if it’s feasible. And if you really have to drive, carpool.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2011, on page 12.
This article was amended on Friday, October 14 2011

The name of the campaigner for Greenpeace was corrected. He is Rayan Makarem, not Makaren.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Environment/2011/Oct-14/151231-air-pollution-on-the-rise-as-beirut-summer-wanes.ashx#ixzz1d22jWDBg
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