Gulf states must address poor indoor air quality, report says

A new study found incense burning and a lack of proper ventilation can impact health in the long-term

A shisha cafe. Salah Malkawi / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Incense burning and hookah smoking is reducing air quality inside homes and malls in the Gulf, a study has found.

The new research said pollution caused by construction was also penetrating buildings in the region.

Experts noted indoor air quality was particularly important in the Middle East given high temperatures tended to mean people spent longer inside.

The study warned long-term exposure to poor air quality could result in respiratory disease and cancer.

“They’re burning this incense indoors and … it increases the concentration of pollutants,” said Dr Hamid Omidvarborna, one of the authors of the research who works at the University of Surrey in the UK.

In the Dubai malls, you will find many shops burning incense. They're smoking in indoor places the hookah

“In the Dubai malls, you will find many shops burning incense. They’re smoking hookah in indoor places.

“If the government prohibits people using this in their homes, we can minimise the risk to small children and families.”

The new study, published in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health in February this year, looked at the "association between human health and indoor air pollution in GCC countries".

Researchers cited a report from Qatar that found the ventilation systems of some buildings were failing to remove pollutants from cooking, smoking, furnishings and other sources.

It said air speeds in 80 per cent of buildings in the country were less than one third of levels recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a widely used international benchmark.

“Results of this review suggest selected indoor settings ... may predispose portions of populations to higher levels of a wide range of indoor air pollutants in GCC countries,” the study said.

“These conditions may lead to an increased incidence of respiratory symptoms as well as other symptoms, such as general health discomfort and sick building syndrome.”

Sick building syndrome is the term for when working indoors gives people symptoms such as tiredness, hand, face, eye, nose or upper respiratory tract irritation, and headaches.

The researchers said that, given the potential health effects, it was "prudent to develop effective indoor air quality management practices in GCC countries".

Farah Yassine, vice-chairperson of the Emirates Green Building Council, which promotes the development of more environmentally friendly buildingssaid that incense burning was "deeply rooted" in UAE culture.

“We need to create a balance between maintaining the cultural and social values of using incense while also reducing any negative impacts that it might have on indoor air quality,” she said.

“The key is to raise awareness of these negative impacts and to empower people to make positive behavioural shifts.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - May 31 2012 - A sales clerk drops a piece of oud into an incense burner at Ibn Battuta mall. Shopkeepers are now only allowed to burn incense inside the store and are not allowed to lure in customers by burning bakhour outside their stores. (Razan Alzayani / The National)

“We don’t always realise we’re harming ourselves. There are pollutants in many common household products such as cleaning agents or paints, even in perfumes and deodorants.

“While these may smell nice, the dangers can often be invisible.”

Ms Yassine, who leads the Sustainable Resource Management team in the UAE at the engineering consultancy WSP, said legislation on the construction of new buildings in the country required that they be adequately ventilated and used safe paints, adhesives, sealants and coatings.

Regulations are applied by individual emirates, and international standards such as ASHRAE are increasingly being adopted.

Ms Yassine said another key issue contributing to poor indoor air quality was a lack of sufficient fresh air circulated from outside.

“It’s challenging to incorporate large amounts of external fresh air when you’re living in a region where the average temperature outside can reach the 40s,” she said.

A Lebanese man smokes a waterpipe at a restaurant in the coastal city of Batroun north of Beirut on May 22, 2019.  Lebanese government who has been debating the cuts on the budget for weeks, have decided to impose a 1,000 Lebanese pound tax ($0.66) on every waterpipe consumed in a restaurant or hotel. / AFP / JOSEPH EID

“It’s energy consuming since external air needs to be cooled and dehumidified before being circulated internally.”

Dr Omidvarborna called for more research on indoor air quality so that sources of pollution were better understood.

“If you know the sources, you can easily consider some prohibitive action,” he said.