May 25, 2012 01:27 AM (Last updated: May 25, 2012 09:35 AM)
By Stephen Dockery

BEIRUT: The country’s air pollution is making our lives shorter, according to findings presented by an environmental research team at the American University of Beirut Thursday.

The startling research shows levels of dangerous particles along the country’s roadways are twice the levels of international safety standards, leading to a 20 percent increase in the risk of premature death for commuters.The study measured the levels of micro-particles in the air that can be inhaled and cause serious long-term sickness. Researchers drove a van with monitoring equipment along the highway from Beirut to Jounieh during different hours of the day over the course of one year to measure the levels of those particles.

The results point to serious long-term health problems for people who spend more than one hour on the roadways, particularly in the morning when traffic is heaviest, cars move slowest and dangerous particles gather around drivers and passengers in a thick cloud.

“Depending on [the particles’ size], they can go inside the lungs, and the smaller the particle, the deeper down inside the lung they can go, and when it goes deeper it creates more damage,” said Najat Saliba, an environmental researcher at AUB.

The study discovered that the size of particles found in massive numbers along the country’s roads are “directly correlated with an increase in the death rate,” manifested in ailments such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, Saliba said.

The culprits are the country’s heavy traffic and large numbers of older-model cars that don’t consume gas efficiently, according to the study. The data shows that fuel inefficiency makes cars along Beirut’s coastal highway create 10 times more dangerous particles than a seven-lane superhighway in the United States.

The greatest concentration of particles along the highway came around the Burj Hammond neighborhood. After the morning commute, noon-time traffic emitted the most particles.

The study highlighted that people being harmed by the particles aren’t just drivers and passengers, but also people walking on the street where particle clouds accumulate, as well as people who live in nearby homes and breathe in the roadway air.

Saliba called for action to reduce the particles’ dangerous toll.

“We call upon governmental and nongovernmental organizations to help in solving this acute air pollution problem in the city,” Saliba said.

She said that there would need to be a general change in habits and attitudes for people to reduce the number of cars on the roads, and thus the congestion that causes particles to build up.

The study, which was supported by Nissan, car dealer Rymco and Bank Audi, emphasized that common habits such as double parking, or greeting friends from cars and causing traffic congestion, also cause more particles to accumulate. She said drivers should stop driving in the middle of the road and stay in a lane to allow more cars to move quickly and consider buying new efficient cars or hybrids.

Saliba also highlighted the need for efficient, reliable public transport. “Personally, I don’t think hybrid cars are the answer,” said Saliba, citing their cost and difficulty to recycle. “I think we have to push for public transportation.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2012, on page 4.

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