Pollution study warns of troubled waters at Mussaffah

The scientists at UAE University discovered that some metals were several times more common in samples collected close to industry compared to those taken from farther away.

Science trip, from left, Dr Mohamed El Tokhi, Dr Bahaa Amin Mahmoud and Dr Sulaiman Al Kaabi. Courtesy UAE University
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ABU DHABI // Abu Dhabi’s environment agency insisted that it carries out strict monitoring of water quality, after a UAE University study suggested industry in Mussaffah was causing pollution that could harm the area’s marine ecology.

Scientists at UAE University had discovered that some metals were several times more common in samples collected close to industry compared with those taken from farther away.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi said it welcomed the opportunity to meet with the researchers involved and to compare the results with its database on marine water quality in Abu Dhabi emirate waters.

“Only after such a consultation would it be possible to ascertain the exact nature and extent of any such pollution issues, and whether any mitigation or remediation measures are required.”

The agency said it had been monitoring beaches in Abu Dhabi city since 2006, testing for 39 pollutants and parameters, including microbial contaminants of public health concern, heavy metals, nutrient pollution and organic compounds.

“[Currently] the agency is collecting and testing seawater and sediment samples on a monthly basis near Corniche main public beach, Bateen public beach and the Fairmont Hotel Beach.

“To date Ead has not observed excessive levels of water or sediment pollutants of public health concern.”

“Ead is in the process of developing ambient marine water quality limits for various water pollutants and permit requirements for discharge of industrial pollutants into the marine environment.”

With industrial waste thought to be the cause of the higher levels, Dr Mohamed El Tokhi, professor of petrology and geochemistry in UAEU’s department of geology, said material “must be treated before being put in the Arabian Gulf”.

He described some sediments as being “very polluted compared to the other areas”.

“We found some high concentrations in the Mussaffah area. Why? Because the Mussaffah area is an industrial area,” said Dr El Tokhi, the principal investigator in the research project.

“A lot of the industry [is] present near to the shoreline. All these industries spill the contaminated liquid from the factories … [into] the Gulf.”

The scientists collected 1 kilogramme samples of sediment at 79 coastal locations along 120 kilometres of Abu Dhabi emirate, from Ghantoot south-west to Abu al Abyad island. Seabed sediment samples were collected at depths of between 6 and 10 metres and sent to a laboratory in Canada to determine the prevalence of 11 types of metal.

It was known that such sediments could act as a reservoir for trace elements and other pollutants.

The 120km zone was split into four areas, with one the most northerly and four the most southerly, and the readings from each zone were averaged.

In the central zones, two and three, there tended to be higher concentrations of trace elements, which included metals such as nickel and zinc. Zinc was present at nearly seven times the quantities in zone three compared with zone four, which is farther south-west and tended to have the lowest concentrations of the substances analysed.

“Some of these elements are a good indicator about the environment, about the pollution,” Dr El Tokhi said.

Titled Trace Metals Contamination of Bottom Sediments of Abu Dhabi area, UAE, the study was published in the journal Acta Physica Polonica A. Dr El Tokhi and his two co-authors, Dr Bahaa Amin Mahmoud and Dr Sulaiman Al Kaabi, said in their paper that increases in the concentration of trace metals can present "serious dangers" to the ecology of an area.

“If the concentration [is at a] high level, it has a bad effect on the fish and the ecology, the relationship between the organisms in the sea and the Gulf,” Dr El Tokhi said.

Dr David Santillo, a senior scientist with the environmental organisation Greenpeace said it was “not a long-term sustainable thing” for there to be increases in the concentration of certain elements.

“If you have industrial activities that are putting these … into the environment, they’re not going to go away. You could be looking at a long-term accumulation,” he said.

“Even if at the moment the concentrations are not causing problems for marine life, in the longer term it could reach levels that could present much more severe problems. At that point it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Dr Santillo, who is based at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said it was important that people got away from thinking that “the marine environment can soak up the pollution that we put into it”.

“It’s a wake-up call to say, ‘Let’s look at what’s happening on land. What can we do to prevent these things going in [the sea] in the first place?’” he said.

“In the UAE, the opportunity exists to ensure industrial development doesn’t come at the same cost as elsewhere.”