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Environment: Human contribution to Middle East’s poor air quality underestimated

Communications Earth & Environment

September 23, 2022

More than 90% of fine particle matter air pollution in the Middle East may be generated by human activity, reports an article published online in Communications Earth & Environment. The findings challenge the consensus that natural aerosols, such as desert dust, are the main cause of poor air quality and highlight the importance of reducing emissions to protect human health in the Middle East.

The air quality in the Middle East is thought to be influenced by natural drivers, such as large-scale atmospheric circulation combined with desert and airborne dust. However, previous research has suggested that a large proportion of air pollution is unaccounted for in emissions in this region, which is known to contribute over 15% of global sulfur dioxide pollution and 7.5% of global greenhouse gases. Approximately an eighth of deaths are attributed to air pollution in this region, similar to that of high cholesterol and tobacco smoking. Poor representation of emissions and a lack of observational data have hindered our understanding of the atmospheric composition of the Middle East, and the impacts on human health.

Jos Lelieveld and colleagues combined analyses of observational data collected from research ships sailed around the Arabian Peninsula in 2017 with atmospheric modelling. They estimated that over 90% of hazardous fine particulate matter in this region originated from human activity, such as burning fossil fuels and the petroleum industry. They found that pollution concentrations consistently exceeded the WHO guidelines, and that the percentage of excess deaths resulting from pollution exposure ranged from 5.9% in Cyprus to 15.9% in Kuwait. Comparatively, in the USA and Germany where air quality is better, these percentages were 3.0% and 3.7%, respectively. The adverse health effects of air pollution were found to be particularly severe in Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

The authors suggest that reducing emissions from human activity in the Middle East would substantially help reduce air pollution and its impact on health, ecosystems, and climate change.

doi: 10.1038/s43247-022-00514-6

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