Air pollution a factor in hundreds of deaths

Abu Dhabi expands network of environment monitoring stations to gather vital information as study blames more than 600 deaths annually on poor air quality.

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DUBAI // Man-made air pollution may have been responsible for more than 600 deaths in 2007, an estimated seven per cent of all UAE fatalities, a study has found.

The biggest hazard, according to the American researchers, is particulate matter - tiny particles of sand, dust and chemicals that can penetrate deep within the lungs.

The study, to be published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, was conducted by scientists from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the United States. Using sophisticated mapping techniques, they estimated that man-made air pollution took 609 lives in 2007. Of those, 545 were attributed to particulate matter. Another 62 resulted from ozone smog, which is formed as car fumes react in sunlight with other air pollutants.

The figures confirm preliminary results published last year, and reported in The National at the time. The researchers are advising the Abu Dhabi Government on its environmental health strategy and have been assigned several air quality investigations by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). "We conclude that anthropogenic ambient air pollution, in particular particulate matter (PM), causes a considerable public health impact in the UAE in terms of premature deaths," their paper said.

Ozone exposure can cause respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma. Particulate matter pollution has been related to respiratory and heart disease. Among the projected 545 PM-related deaths - including 209 in Abu Dhabi emirate - were likely to have been three children. The figures were calculated on the basis of the Ministry of Health's 2007 annual report, as well as data from 2007 and 2008 from 10 air-quality monitoring stations in Abu Dhabi. This was used to infer pollution in the rest of the country.

There is no data from Ras al Khaimah, for example, where there is localised pollution from quarrying and cement manufacturing. The researchers also had to try to determine how much PM pollution occurs naturally, and how much is man-made. Dr Asif Sattar, consultant pulmonologist at The City Hospital in Dubai, said the study shed some light on the prevalence of lung disease in the country. "It is not surprising if you consider that 15 per cent of the population is asthmatic," he said, pointing out that in the UK the equivalent figure was 5 per cent.

"This proves how big this problem is and how important it is to start taking some controls about it." While naturally occurring dust storms are a main factor in lung disease, pollution is also a known trigger, he said. "What I tell my patients is to try to not make it worse for themselves by smoking shisha or cigarettes."

Sand and dust storms carrying millions of tiny airborne particles occur naturally in a desert country such as the UAE is. Construction activities can also stir up dust.

Industrial processes such as fossil-fuel combustion in vehicle engines and refineries are also sources of PM pollution. There is also not enough information about the chemical composition and size of the floating particles, which has an effect on how dangerous they are.

However, the researchers believe their case is firm. "Ambient PM should be set as a top priority in developing national programmes to protect public health from environmental risks in the UAE," they wrote.

In Abu Dhabi, EAD has started studying the chemical composition and character of PM pollution and is expanding its network of air-quality monitoring stations. Special attention is being paid to the very tiny particles, less than a quarter of a hundredth of a millimetre across. They are considered to be the most dangerous to health as they penetrate deeper into the lungs.

Dr Alaa Salem, professor of analytical chemistry at UAE University, agreed with some of the findings of the study.

"From our previous work, it looks like particulate matter in UAE ambient air represents serious hazardous pollutants that should be carefully dealt with," he said.

He monitored air quality in Al Ain within a one-year period in 2004 and 2005. He also reviewed a Ministry of Health annual report, which said that out of nearly 150,000 patients treated at Al Ain public health clinics, 90 per cent were suffering from diseases of the upper respiratory tract, bronchitis, asthma and other forms of respiratory disease.

However, he found that concentrations of four common pollutants, including ground-level ozone, were within national and international guidelines. No comment was available from health officials in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, nor from the EAD.

* Addendum 11/10/2010: We would like to make it clear that the cited findings that up to 600 deaths in 2007 may be linked to pollution is a theoretical estimate and not an actual count of deaths linked directly to pollution. Meanwhile, the exact nature of the particulates and whether they are naturally occurring or man-made remains under investigation. The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), which sponsored the study, also wishes to clarify that the figure is used solely as a means of prioritising environmental risk assessment and that there is no direct cause and effect relationship between the two main data sets used.