July 26, 2013

By Samya Kullab

BEIRUT: Ships sailing off Beirut’s coast emit thick plumes of smoke from their stacks, and cars line the main roads for miles during the capital’s grinding rush-hour traffic, with their exhaust pipes emitting dangerous fumes. Many factors are thought to adversely impact air quality in Lebanon, but until now, it was impossible to draw definite conclusions at a nationwide scale. Data about the level of pollutants in the air and the resulting impact on health have relied on private initiatives and university-based research groups that produce site-specific studies. These are driven by the research interests of a given scientist, rather than a national mitigation policy.

The lack of unified data at the national level has made it impossible to draw explicit conclusions about the causal relationship between air pollution and the associated health problems. But monitoring systems have now been established by the Environment Ministry, with support from the United Nations Development Program, to eventually bridge this epidemiological gap.

Five areas – considered crucial because of high-population density – were identified to set up monitoring stations, including two in Beirut, and one each in Baalbek, Sidon and Tyre.

“The Environment Ministry is taking the lead in producing this type of information that would help us – in the first stage – assess the situation when it comes to air pollution, and eventually be able to incorporate the data and generate future policies and future response actions,” explained Nour Masri, project manager of the ministry’s air quality monitoring endeavor.

The fixed monitoring stations, known as turnkey particle systems, will continuously record the contents of the air people are breathing and measure its level of pollutants, which include carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. As a result, the ministry will have real-time data, which will be pooled in a central server to assess the status of air quality in the country and steer policy decisions accordingly.

“Of course the challenging part is to actually do something with the data we are gathering,” Masri said, adding that this would require establishing a specialized unit to analyze the data and advise the ministry.

“Because monitoring itself is not very interesting, we need to be able to take action afterward.”

Despite the lack of a nationwide study, information compiled by institutions already paints a troubling picture of Lebanon’s atmosphere.

“We know that we have major problems when it comes to air pollution, especially in dense areas,” Masri said.

An inventory of emissions was compiled by various universities in Beirut, including the American University of Beirut and Saint Joseph University, with support from the municipality, to sample and analyze key pollutants. Outside the capital, the Tripoli Environment and Development Observatory and the University of Balamand also have air quality monitoring projects of their own.

The degradation of air quality has been a source of concern for public health from the start. According to isolated studies, air pollution is said to affect millions of people living in urban centers, where smog, small particles and pollutants are rampant, causing respiratory ailments, cancer and damage to immune, neurological and reproductive systems.

Various epidemiological studies have illustrated a positive correlation between exposure to air pollution and its detrimental effects on public health in certain cities.

“Unfortunately, at a national scale, we basically have zero information when it comes to epidemiological studies,” Masri explained.

Apart from health impacts, there are accompanying economic ones. The annual cost of air quality degradation in the country, according to a study issued by the Environment Ministry, is said to be an estimated $170 million, constituting a little over 1 percent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product.

Pollution from lead emissions, arising mainly from on-road motor vehicles and industrial processes, was a major source of the financial loss, costing anywhere between $28 million and $40 million and resulting in irreversible health conditions, such as impaired neurological development in children.

Outdoor air pollution from particulate matter resulted in $26 million in losses and is said to be the cause of respiratory illnesses.

Human influences on air quality derive from activities such as driving cars and industrial and manufacturing processes, as well as agriculture, construction and quarrying. Mundane activities like cleaning and painting can also release pollutants.

The bulk of human-induced air pollution, however, is a product of economic activities in the energy, industry and transportation sectors, the latter being the main source of air pollution in the country.

Transportation accounted for 59 percent of national nitrogen oxide emissions, a primary air pollutant, according to the Environment Ministry.

Moreover the numbers will likely rise, as the Central Administration of Statistics shows a dramatic increase in annual vehicle registration, rising from 40,515 vehicles in 2001 to 106,959 in 2008. Almost 70 percent of registered vehicles are private cars.

While Masri foresees funding and coordination with other relevant ministries, especially the Public Works and Transport Ministry, as potential challenges in the future, the principal hurdle, she said, lies in the Parliament’s endorsement of the draft Clean Air Act, prepared by the ministry in 2005 and approved by a parliamentary committee in March 2012.

With 34 articles related to man-made air pollution – the monitoring, prevention and control of pollutants – Masri believes its approval by lawmakers would provide the project with an additional stamp of legitimacy.

“Then we would have application decrees and it would facilitate the action component. It would give us more authority.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2013, on page 4.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Jul-26/225078-new-project-to-track-air-pollution-nationwide.ashx#ixzz2akaJ1gDS
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)