Every breath you (shouldn’t) take… when in Beirut

kaslik pollution EDL bytheeast
In October 2018, Greenpeace classified Jounieh, a Lebanese city 15 kilometers north of Beirut which is home to fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, as the most polluted city in Lebanon. © Roula Messarra

Dear tourists, welcome to Beirut. A (strange) smell is in the air, you should probably worry. And don’t think the same air will be healthier in Jounieh: atmospheric pollution has become a health risk all over Lebanon. With the summer haze back, an ominous cloud permanently hangs over Lebanon’s capital – a constant reminder of health risks that stems from poor air quality.

According to a report from Greenpeace, the Middle East needs to significantly improve its air quality since its cities are some of the ones that are the worst effected in the world.

Air quality standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that harmful particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter can penetrate the human body and can cause cancer. Air pollution levels in Beirut are three times higher than the recommended level.

Smoking and air pollution as 2 main causes of diseases

“Ministries should create a crisis unit ASAP,” tweeted Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut along with a photo of the city’s skyline smothered in smog.

According to a WHO report of 2018, smoking and air pollution are the two main causes of non-communicable diseases in Lebanon with children under five years particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic smog, as described by The National.

“We have noticed an increase in emergency cases of severe lung infections this year,” said Zeina Aoun, a pulmonologist at Beirut’s Hotel Dieu Hospital.

Typical of Lebanon, there are no statistics from the government to corroborate doctors’ observations, although according to the WHO, 4% of deaths in Lebanon are caused by chronic respiratory diseases while 16% by cancer. Air pollution is killing the vulnerable population in Lebanon. “That’s very high,” said Dr Aoun.

Incidentally, the most common types of cancer in Lebanon are lung and bladder cancer, both of which can be caused by inhaling toxic fumes that enter the bloodstream and can lead to cellular mutation. These toxic fumes are a result of widespread air pollution.

In October 2018, Greenpeace classified Jounieh, a Lebanese city 15 kilometers north of Beirut which is home to fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, as the most polluted city in Lebanon. Greenpeace’s report focused on nitrogen oxide levels in the air.

Nitrogen oxides is typically released in the air when fuel is burnt. Nitrogen oxides levels in Jounieh is the fifth-highest in the Arab world. This level of air pollution in Jounieh can be attributed to its power plants, which are poorly maintained and emit thick black smoke.

Although nitrogen oxide emitted through Lebanon’s power plants are copious, the chief culprit however is diesel generators. With Beirut facing power cuts of at least 3 to 4 hours a day, inhabitants of the city depend on diesel generators for their power needs; and although they are not as visible as the ever present smog, their distinct hum has become part and parcel of the country’s soundscape.

According to Najat Aoun Saliba, who heads the atmospheric and analytical lab at AUB, she along with her colleague Issam Lakkis, mapped the generators of Beirut and found that there was, on average, one diesel generator for every other building. As a result, the inhabitants of Beirut are forced to intake air pollution equivalent to smoking two cigarettes a day.

To top that up, Lebanese cars are on average 19 years old and emit dangerous fumes. Carcinogen levels measured at traffic hot spots in Beirut are seven times higher than those of similar sites in Los Angeles, according to Ms. Saliba’s research.

Saliba and her team are among the few who are looking into air pollution in Lebanon.

Incidentally, although Lebanon’s Environment Ministry has installed air-monitoring stations all over the country, it does not release the data. Even preventive ­measures, including closing down schools on peak pollution days and cutting down traffic, are yet to be implemented.

“When we do air pollution measurement, it’s intermittent, not continuous. We definitely need more resources,” said Ms. Saliba.

As a first step to mitigate rising pollution levels is to cut down the number of generators, rejuvenate the traffic fleet and build a more robust public-transport system so there are fewer cars on the road, said Ms., Saliba.

She went on to add, “Everybody else has done it,” she said. “I don’t know why we can’t.” Like many in Lebanon, Ms. Saliba’s is hoping that the government will carry out anti-pollution measures any time soon.

Earlier this year, the Lebanese government had promised that it would upgrade the country’s crumbling infrastructure, provide round the clock electricity, which in turn will slash air pollution levels in the country.

Here’s hoping that the Lebanese government will turn a new chapter and deliver on its promises. For once.