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Middle East air pollution among worst in the world

Middle East air pollution Reuters
Smoke emitting from a desalination plant in Jizan, Saudi Arabia: The kingdom is among the world's worst countries for PM2.5 pollution
  • Iraq second worst for PM2.5 pollution
  • Several Mena countries at 8 times safe levels
  • Pollution affects GDP as well as health

Air pollution levels in the Middle East and North Africa region (Mena) are among the highest globally, and concentrations of harmful particulates are increasing in many of the region’s cities as economic activity returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Measurements and definitions can vary, so Switzerland’s IQAir created a standardised air quality app to monitor and compare air quality in cities and countries worldwide.

Based on 2022 data, IQAir ranked Iraq second worst globally in terms of exposure to PM2.5 particles. These are liquid and solid particles less than 2.5 microns (0.0025 millimetres) long that can penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. PM2.5 includes sulphates, nitrates, lead, ammonia, and carbon and mineral dust.

Iraq’s annual average PM2.5 reading was 80.1 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m3) in 2022, up from 49.7 a year earlier. Only Chad has lower air quality.

Pakistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all ranked in the top 15 worst affected countries, based on IQAir’s data.

In 2021, the World Health Organization published revised air quality guidelines, halving the maximum annual average concentration for PM2.5 to no more than 5 µg/m3, following research that showed the pollutant was even more harmful than previously thought.

As such, the air in the Mena countries listed above has at least eight times the safe limit of PM2.5.

“Even if you are at 5 µg/m3, that doesn't mean there's no health impact,” said Jamie Kelly, an air quality analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent think-tank based in Finland.

“It's literally from zero upwards that there’s an association between exposure and health risks.”

Economic risk

The main causes of Mena air pollution are road vehicles, municipal waste burning and industrial activities, according to a 2022 World Bank report.

This estimated that health problems from ambient air pollution cost the region the equivalent of 5.5 percent of its combined GDP in 2019.

By WHO standards, no Mena country was within its safe guidelines for PM2.5.

“Controlling PM2.5 is challenging because it originates as emissions. It then undergoes chemical reactions in the atmosphere to form PM2.5,” said Kelly.

“These particles can live in the atmosphere for one to two weeks and can be transported by winds from the source to other locations, even other countries. So, you may detect PM2.5 in a specific place, but it's difficult to know where it came from.”

According to Berkeley Earth, a US non-profit, inhaling 22 µg/m3 of PM2.5 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette daily. By that reckoning, residents in Bahrain are breathing in the equivalent of three cigarettes per day. Those in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi are inhaling 2 – 2.5 cigarettes daily.

The cost of reduction

Middle East governments can reduce PM2.5 emissions by switching power generation to renewables instead of fossil fuels, Kelly said. If this is unfeasible, it is still possible to install technology on fossil fuel-fired power stations that can cut emissions by up to 90 percent, he added.

Yet such equipment is costly.

“There’s air pollution policy and there's economic policy. They're generally dealt with as separate things, although they're not,” said Noelle Selin, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There isn’t a wide appreciation of the health and economic consequences – even just the daily life consequences – of bad air to people. It's hard to attribute and really appreciate the magnitude of the cost of air pollution to society. Joined-up thinking is important.”

In terms of cities, IQAir live data showed Dubai had the third-worst air worldwide on October 4, while Doha was 17th, Riyadh 19th and Baghdad 34th.

In Mena, the high prevalence of dust from sandstorms is often considered “natural” pollution. Yet in reality, it can also be human made, or anthropogenic, said Selin.

For example, desertification – caused by human activity – is increasing the amount of sand and dust in the atmosphere.

“Also, because of climate and meteorological changes there’s a kind of feedback loop in terms of air pollution. Climate change makes the air more stagnant or hotter, which facilitates the formation of air pollution,” she said.

“Hotter weather accelerates a lot of chemical reactions and so makes some nasty air pollutants in the atmosphere. So, 'natural' isn’t really natural anymore.”

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