Dust storms prompt concerns over UAE's air quality

Dust storms are a regular summer occurrence but people with allergies should take precautions, say doctors

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Heavy dust storms blanketing the UAE have sent pollution levels rocketing and highlighted concerns that people could be making the problem worse.

The dust has cut visibility on the roads and led to warnings to motorists to drive more carefully.

The storms are a regular summer occurrence often associated with the shamal north-westerly regional winds.

Dr Bassam Mahboub, head of the Emirates Allergy and Respiratory Society, said sandstorms are typically made up of silica crystals and contain viruses, bacteria and dust mites.

“Allergic people shouldn’t go out without protection,” said Dr Mahboub, who also assistant dean at the University of Sharjah Medical College. “They should take their medication regularly and watch if the symptoms are not getting controlled.”

Air quality data on Monday indicated that the UAE had more heavily polluted air than that of many cities known as hotspots for smog, with haze or fog worsened by pollutants.

About midday on Monday, a commercial air quality information provider, BreezoMeter, gave Dubai a rating of four and Abu Dhabi a figure of nine on a 100-point scale, where lower figures indicate higher levels of pollution.


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The equivalent figures for Delhi, Beijing, Mumbai and Bangkok at the same time were 11, 22, 29 and 55 respectively, suggesting their air was cleaner.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi said natural phenomena were part of the reason why the emirate’s pollution levels could be higher than recommended thresholds.

“Dust storms often occur in the UAE from February to March and from June to August,” said Ruqaya Mohammed, the agency’s section manager for air quality, noise and climate change.

Ms Mohammed said that air quality across Abu Dhabi emirate was monitored in real time through 20 fixed and two mobile monitoring stations that measured up to 17 pollutants.

Among these are PM10, which is particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in size, and PM2.5, which is up to 2.5 micrometres.

Particulate matter has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other illnesses. “Data from the network shows that levels in Abu Dhabi emirate exceeded the national standard limit for the former and guideline values for the latter,” Ms Mohammed said.

This week’s figures follow concerns over air pollution.

The UAE responded robustly in 2015 when World Bank figures indicated that the country had the world's most polluted air, with officials saying that dust storm effects should not be lumped together with human-caused pollution.

The Emirates also said its own figures indicated much lower pollution levels.

Reports have suggested that each year more than 120,000 deaths, or about 7 per cent of all premature deaths, in the Mena region are associated with air pollution.

Peter Knippertz, professor of meteorology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, who researches dust storms in deserts, said that for people living in rural areas, dust storms could be "the number one source of air pollution".

Prof Knippertz suggested that human-induced effects could be making them more common.

“There’s been a long debate about how much the increase in distribution we see in several parts of the world is the result of human activity and how much is it natural fluctuations and maybe on to climate change,” he said.

Overgrazing, which affects vegetation levels, is among the factors that can cause an increase in dust storms.

Prof Knippertz said that because it could travel hundreds of kilometres, dust whipped up in Syria and Iraq, possibly as a result of human changes, could affect the Gulf region.

The conflict in Syria has, he said, had been given as a reason why fields have not been tended, leading to more erosion.

“This part of the year has practically no precipitation,” Prof Knippertz said. “Once dust is in the air, it’s difficult to get out. The smaller particles can take weeks to settle.”

While there are measures that governments can take to try to reduce the amount of dust whipped up, such as promoting effective soil management, he said these efforts had to be carried out internationally.

“In a small country like the UAE, if none of the neighbours takes any measures as well, you just receive the dust from far away,” said Prof Knippertz.

“Ideally, there would be a bit of a concerted effort to improve the situation. That would probably be the most effective thing to do, but given the situation in Syria, I’m not very hopeful we’ll see large improvements in the near future.”

At Mina Zayed, it's business as usual

Workers at the Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi continued to work outside despite the dust and temperatures approaching 50°C. Merchants at the vegetable market spent the morning rushing between their stalls to 4x4s that would pull up outside the stalls. Customers at the market are unwilling to brave the midsummer heat and place an order that involves stepping outside their air-conditioned SUVs.

“It’s a little dusty but praise the Lord, it’s good,” said Mohammed Harun, 31, a fruit seller from Pakistan. “I must work and earn, so whatever comes, comes and whatever comes is no problem for me. God willing it will be good tomorrow.”

Most were less concerned by the dust than the searing heat. “Heat, what heat?” said merchant Mohammed Nasser, 40, as sweat dripped down his face and neck. “Who said anything about it being hot?”

As for the dust, workers had one response: Al hamdulillah, thank the Lord.

After all, it is all in God’s hands.