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Why is air quality bad in the Middle East?

Sandstorms in the Middle East are practically cliché. Yet these roaring dirt storms are a climatic trifle compared with the particulate pollution whipped up by humans in the Middle East, according to a study published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment in September.

More than 90 percent of the fine particulate matter in the Middle East's air is of anthropogenic origin, report Sergey Osipov and Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and colleagues, based on both measurement and modeling.

Basically, storms come and go while the emissions are perennial. Yet the human contribution to the lousy quality of air in the Middle East has been overlooked, the authors explain – and the pollution is having a toll on public health.

In the Middle East, the team estimates, deaths from smog are numerically comparable to deaths from smoking and high cholesterol, they report – about 745 per 100,000 a year, on average.

Clearly the "fine particulate matter" in the air (in the professional jargon, PM2.5) always surpasses health guideline concentrations in the Middle East as a whole, and half of that category of particles does stem from sandstorms and dust storms. It is also telling that the PM2.5 category pollution is much worse in Kuwait, for example, than Cyprus, and Cyprus' figures are worse than that of the U.S. and Germany – illustrating just how poor the air quality in the Middle East is, the team says. Also, if half of this matter stems from storms, but half stems from us, then half is preventable.

You wouldn't be alone if you had assumed Middle Eastern sandstorms were the main cause of aerosols (particles in the air). "In the Middle East, desert dust is assumed to dominate air pollution, being in permanent violation of public health guidelines," the paper begins. Researchers had assumed that the desert dust blowing all over the region would dominate measurements of both fine and coarse particles, obscuring our puny signal. But it isn't so.

Of course, this could change and not in a good way. Climatologists warn that the Middle East faces intensifying aridification as climate change proceeds. Presently, the region averages about 20 major sand and dust storms each year, but the combination of barren land, soil degradation thanks to short-sighted and ill-thought water management and agricultural practices, rising temperatures, and the naturally strong winds suggests that number will grow.

Back to the air pollution study which made measurements on board ships sailing around the Arabian peninsula in 2017 and were augmented by atmospheric modeling, the team explains.

Frankly, to cognoscenti of pollution, the results are not shocking. For one thing, the Middle East has a population of about 400 million and the region's ecological footprint is vast. Even before Lebanon made headlines this month for the sheer immensity of the emissions from generators used for power instead of the collapsed electricity infrastructure, the Middle East was responsible for more than 7.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions, which are terrible for the respiratory system.

But official representations of emissions have fallen short of full disclosure, the new paper explains, and observational data was also lacking, which constrained modeling. Hence the ship-borne measurement project, dubbed Aqaba - (Air Quality and climate in the Arabian Basin).

To drive home the point of how bad the air quality in the Middle East is for health, the authors of the study compare excess mortality from it, to the coronavirus. "Although not directly compatible (one being a health risk and the other a disease), the annual excess mortality attributable to poor air quality (11.5 percent due to PM2.5 and ozone) and that from COVID-19 (7.6 percent region-wise and 10.3 percent excluding Egypt, Syria and Yemen as low-outliers) are similar, but noting that the health impacts from air pollution are of long-term duration," they write. Duly noted.

Ruth Schuster