At the beginning of the year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the Middle East was ranked first among the regions with the worst air quality. There is a common misconception that desert dust is the most important cause of particulate air pollution in this region, but a new study shows that more than 90 percent of particulate matter harmful to health originate from anthropogenic sources. These man-made microparticles differ from the less harmful particles of desert dust. Scientists determined this through measurements generated by ships and verified them in detailed modeling calculations. Anthropogenic particles result primarily from the production and use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas. It is usually smaller than desert dust and can penetrate deep into the lungs.
In 2017, an international team headed by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry traveled around the Arabian Peninsula aboard a research vessel on an amazing expedition. Various measuring instruments were kept on board for sampling of aerosol particles and trace gases such as ozone and nitric oxides. The researchers also discovered that the Suez Canal, the northern Red Sea, and especially the Persian Gulf are regional ozone hotspots. The exceptionally strong ozone concentration in these areas indicates that the harmful gas is also a problem in other densely populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, the scientists found that the concentrations of nitrogen oxides were much higher than the WHO guidelines.
Says Sergei Osipov, an atmospheric physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. “We used data in atmospheric chemistry models in order to draw conclusions about general air quality and health consequences.”
Air pollution in the Middle East leads to high death rates
“Particle boundaries are constantly being exceeded in the region, which is home to 400 million people,” says Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and project leader. “While measurements have been made for several years, looking at the data more closely using new atmospheric modeling tools has surprisingly shown that the health-hazardous portion of the pollution particles is almost exclusively man-made.” In addition to several researchers from Mainz, scientists from Kuwait and the Cyprus Institute as well as from Saudi Arabia, France and the USA participated in the project. “Severe air pollution results in an annual excess mortality rate of 745 people per 100,000 people. It has a similar importance to other major health risk factors, such as high cholesterol and tobacco smoking, and is comparable to the COVID-19 mortality rate,” adds the atmospheric scientist, He is also a professor at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia. He said that given that human-caused air pollution is a major factor in climate change in the Middle East as well, emission reduction measures are the most important.