850 deaths each year linked to air pollution

A national strategy for environmental health is being developed to combat dangerous levels of smog and dust found in the Emirates.

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ABU DHABI // Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is responsible for an estimated 850 deaths a year in the UAE, according to a study commissioned by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. The greatest risk is outdoors, where residents are exposed to unhealthy levels of ozone smog and particulate matter, which are tiny dust specks that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases when inhaled, the study found.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the Rand Corporation, a non-profit organisation devoted to policy and research, spent more than a year studying water and air samples, pollution and meteorology data, and records of deaths and doctor visits in the UAE. Their findings are being used to create the National Strategy and Action Plan for Environmental Health, the first draft of which was reviewed last week. The document will be released to the public today.

Air quality in the UAE should be addressed immediately because the country's rapid development will continue to apply pressure on the environment and the health of residents, said Dr Jacqueline MacDonald, the principal investigator for the project. She called for the creation of national environmental standards and greater power for government agencies to enforce existing regulations. She also said the country needs more air quality monitoring stations, and more data-sharing among agencies and emirates.

"They really need more," she said. "It will be good if all their monitors can be networked so that everyone can access and share the information." Outdoor air pollution was responsible for 600 deaths a year, the report estimated, while indoor air pollution led to 250 deaths. Dr Zia Hasan, who specialises in internal medicine at the Wellness Medical Centre in Dubai, said it was "alarming" that so many people would die from poor outdoor air quality.

"But, you can't just stay indoors and not go out," he said. "I think people need more guidance from the health authorities here. We need more information going out to the public and employers who can then advise their workforce." The Wellness Medical Centre sees about five patients a week with breathing difficulties and rashes, Dr Hasan said. He said there are definitely more cases related to outdoor air pollution here than in the UK, where he worked previously.

"People suffering should try and identify what could be causing it," he said. "We do have tests, too, and some people may need to start wearing masks. Patients may also need help from their workplaces and their employers." Earlier this year, environmental experts identified the oil and gas industry as the main source of air pollution in Abu Dhabi, followed by the power and transportation sectors. The air here often exceeds the acceptable averages for ozone smog and particulate matter, said Dr Tarek el Araby of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, which has been contracted to do air quality monitoring for the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.

Ozone smog, one of the main causes of outdoor air pollution, is formed when nitrogen oxides, the pollutants present in car fumes, react in the presence of sunlight with other pollutants known as volatile organic compounds. Ozone smog exposure can cause respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma. Particulate matter (PM), small airborne particles of different sizes and chemical composition, can cause the greatest health damage. PM pollution has been linked with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Sources of PM pollution include motorised vehicles and industries such as oil refining. Also, some particles are released via natural processes as the desert is disturbed by wind. In 2007, PM levels in Abu Dhabi exceeded the emirate's standard on about one-third of the days when air quality measurements were taken, the strategy plan said. Concentrations of particulate matter have not been monitored routinely, though, and there are no regulations that address the problem, Dr MacDonald said.

Several ongoing initiatives have been planned as part of the strategy project. The research team is attempting to identify the origin of the particulate matter pollution in the UAE and determine how much of it is man-made. Also, an air quality computer model will be created, which will enable decision-makers to predict the impact of planned industrial facilities and other pollution-creating sources on overall air quality. The model will also simulate the outcomes of official measures to tackle pollution.

Another team will look at indoor pollution, launching a six-month study in which the homes of 600 residents will be tested against several indoor air quality parameters. Dr McDonald's study reviewed eight risk areas, the remaining six being occupational exposures; drinking water contamination; coastal water pollution; climate change; soil and groundwater pollution due to solid and hazardous waste; and contamination of produce and seafood.

After air pollution, occupational exposures in industry, construction and agriculture were the third largest environmental risk factor. Occupational exposures, responsible for an estimated 40 deaths per year, include exposures to carcinogens and polluted air, which can cause diseases such as leukemia, lung cancer, silicosis and asbestosis. The leading causes of non-fatal diseases mainly gastrointestinal complaints were drinking water contamination (120,000 doctors visits per year) and coastal water pollution (47,000 visits), the study found.

There were an estimated nine annual fatalities attributed to contaminated drinking water, but the water produced in the country's desalination plants is "generally good", Dr MacDonald said. No deaths are attributed to contaminated produce. However, some seafood contains methylmercury at levels above those considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The strategy report makes a number of recommendations on how environmental health risks can be reduced across all eight of the categories studied.

"A lot of our recommendations have to do with improving access to data," Dr MacDonald said. "There is still a need for more environmental sampling here." While studying risks related to coastal pollution, for example, the research team had data from only two beaches Al Raha beach and the Abu Dhabi public beach. The study of outdoor air pollution excluded studies on toxic compounds in the air such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

Toxic compounds in air are also a concern for human health, the strategy report said, "given that the petroleum industry has facilities near large populations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai." vtodorova@thenational.ae