Abu Dhabi steps up air quality monitoring programme

Experts from the emirate’s environment agency join World Health Organisation working groups

People enjoying a sunny day and warm weather watching jet skiers near flag point on Corniche in Abu Dhabi as skies clear up after the previous day's non-stop rain. Ravindranath K / The National
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Abu Dhabi has expanded a programme aimed at improving air quality in the emirate.

Experts from Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) have joined the World Health Organisation’s Global Air Pollution and Health Technical Advisory Group.

They now sit on two working groups – one focused on dust, sand and health and the other on policy interventions.

It is hoped the knowledge gained in the groups can help the emirate continue recent strides made to improve air quality.

In the past year, our air quality on 83 per cent of the days had good or moderate air quality
Ruqaya Mohamed, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi

Air quality is not only affected by pollutants, but also by ozone, dust and sand, which can pick up and carry other contaminants on the way.

A network of 22 air monitors across the emirate, 20 of which are fixed while two are mobile, assess what is coming from where to help regulate it.

“In the past year, our air quality on 83 per cent of the days had good or moderate air quality, which is green and yellow and relatively healthy for the general population,” Ruqaya Mohamed, section manager, air quality, noise and climate change at EAD told The National.

“Of course, we have those days where we have peaks of dust and also sometimes ozone. These two particular pollutants are largely affected by the regional climate and natural sources.”

The emirate’s air monitors track 14 pollutants to check how healthy or unhealthy the air is.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Mini Atlantis, and the Presidential Palace view on a clear day from the Arabian Gulf. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

That data is then fed into a publicly available Abu Dhabi air quality dashboard where people can see for themselves if it is safe to spend time outdoors.

On Friday, the dashboard showed that many areas of the emirate were classed as green on the index, meaning the air posed no health concern.

Days when the air quality is particularly poor air are often the result of dust, sand and ground level ozone, Ms Mohamed said.

“When we say ozone, most people focus on the hole in the ozone layer, but there is also ozone at the level we breathe. This is one of the pollutants we monitor,” she said.

“The difference between ozone and other pollutants is that ozone is emitted; it’s created. It’s a mix of other pollutants coming together. You have nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, plus heat. A lot of sunshine, a lot of sunlight.

“It could be created 100 kilometres from here and it will come here. Or the things that are required to create it are created elsewhere.

“It’s important to study where the sources are. That’s what we are doing with the agency.”

During the early days of the pandemic, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide – all pollutants released by vehicles – plunged, in some cases as much as 70 per cent.

Springer Nature published a paper by the EAD on the topic, based on its findings.

However, a recent study by scientists in the Emirates found that concentrations of tiny particulate matter in the air in eastern Arabia, including the UAE, actually increased during the period.

The increase resulted from an unusually active period of dust storms caused by the region’s shamal winds.

“You could have a sand storm here and the impact on what is carried on the sand or in the sand is completely different,” Ms Mohamed said.

“The sand storm could have the same origin but depending on where it passes by the time it reaches your place or my place it carries all sorts of things along the way.”

That includes things such as pollutants or even viruses, bacteria and fungi, she said.

The study reports that from March to June 2020, the level of particulate matter in eastern Arabia was 30 per cent higher than the average seen from 2016 to 2019.

Particulate matter can cause health effects including everything from sneezing and a runny nose to heart disease and lung cancer.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 1:15 PM