Within the next few months the number of air-monitoring stations in Abu Dhabi emirate will double as the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) steps up efforts to manage the worsening air.
The 20 stations across the city and surrounding desert will provide the agency with more accurate data about the quality of the air we breathe – and hopefully give it a better chance of improving. The levels of particulate matter in the air which are damaging to human health have increased in recent years, especially in rural areas.
This increase is not necessarily linked to increased development and construction, but may be the result of natural changes such as new weather patterns blowing more dust up into the airshed.
“The siting of the air quality stations is not random; there is a lot of science that goes into it,” says Darryl Lew, executive director of the environment quality sector at the EAD.
“And we feel that a network of 20 stations will give a very significant coverage to monitor the air quality. It will give us evidence-based material to make strategic decisions.”
The biggest concern is the tiny particulate matter small enough to penetrate the lungs and even other organs. The two measurements – PM10 and PM2.5 – indicate particles in the air with a diameter smaller than 10 micrometers and 2.5 micrometers respectively.
This matter is made up of nitrates and sulphates, organic chemicals, soil and dust particles and metals. The smaller the particle, the easier it travels into the lungs.
“These small particles get into people’s respiratory tracts and into their lungs, and cause respiratory diseases because they have a lot of problems expelling the particles,” explains Mr Lew.
“It is our most significant air quality issue here in Abu Dhabi. Our primary, secondary and tertiary objective is public health.
“There is concern in Abu Dhabi at the rate of respiratory illnesses, and whether this is increasing in the population.”
The limits for air quality were set in the 1999 Federal Law number 24. At present, PM10 is the only parameter which exceeds its limit, set at 150 micrograms per cubic metre, per 24 hours. This is three times higher than the World Health Organisation’s global guideline.
“There isn’t one country in the world that doesn’t face these issues, particularly those with a large industrial sector. Is their work ever finished? No. There is always work to do,” Mr Lew says.
“While we are not concerned about some of the other parameters at the moment, if significant further industrial development happens in Abu Dhabi we will be.”
The challenge is not an easy one to meet. The EAD is not only up against increased industrial works, but changes in the natural environment which are virtually impossible to control.
Between 60 to 70 per cent of the small particulate matter in the air is a result of the natural desert environment, and the remaining 30 and 40 per cent is caused by humans.
Most of the latter is the product of industrial emissions. “Here in the deserts of the Gulf we have the finest particles in the world,” Mr Lew says.
“That means when a dust wind comes along, a lot [of the particles] can be entrained into the airshed and it comes into Abu Dhabi. This natural dust has been a fact of life here for centuries and centuries and centuries.”
The agency’s current 10 air-monitoring stations, which were installed five years ago, are placed across the emirate in urban and rural settings.
Figures released recently revealed an increase in the annual average PM10 concentration in ambient air from 2010 to 2011 in seven of the 10 stations.
The highest rate was recorded at the Baniyas Saad Bin Obadah Primary School site (203) and the lowest at the station at Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi city (128).
Mussaffah recorded 184 in 2011, and 227 in 2010, while Khalifa High School on Abu Dhabi island increased from 72 in 2010 to 137 last year. Real-time data is displayed on the website www.adairquality.ae.
Ruqaya Mohamed, acting manager in air quality, noise and climate change at the EAD, said the variations between stations was down to “area representativeness and manmade local sources” as well as different seasonal variations.
With regards to the increases, the agency insists it is mostly down to natural causes rather than increased industry.
“We will be looking at the reasons for this increases. Is it different weather patterns causing more wind?” asks Mr Lew.
“There is some evidence to suggest that the drying of the marshes in southern Iraq has provided a significant new source for dust which is being entrained in the wind.”
Alarmingly, in Abu Dhabi, respiratory infections are the second most common non-life threatening condition, accounting for almost 14 per cent of all episodes in health centres, according to the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi.
Of more concern is its high ranking as a leading cause of death, where it comes fourth after diseases of the circulatory system, external causes of morbidity and neoplasms.
In 2011 the health authority registered 124 deaths – or 4.2 per cent of all deaths – resulting from respiratory illnesses.
The number of new asthma cases diagnosed year on year increased from 131,431 in 2010, to 139,092 in 2011.
The Health Authority – Abu Dhabi admitted that asthma was “not well controlled or managed in the emirate” but did not elaborate.
It also said public awareness on asthma was poor and that it planned to increase the healthcare professional awareness.
Speaking about the increase in respiratory illnesses, Mrs Mohamed says there had not been a “cause and effect study” into the increase in respiratory illnesses but it was understood to be linked to deteriorating air quality.
In an effort to better protect public health, the EAD is working on developing an air quality forecasting system, similar to the pollen count forecasts delivered in some other countries.
“It will give us the ability to say ‘in two days’ time the air quality will be poor’,” says Mr Lew. “This gives the health authority [the opportunity] to put out successful communications to people with respiratory illnesses to say ‘make sure you have your medicine stocked up’.
“It can also give directions to the pharmacists to make sure they have stock in as a precautionary measure.”
The other tool the EAD has in its locker is the environmental permits issued to all industry.
Every industry or construction project must apply each year for a permit to operate. Without it, work cannot go ahead.
It is also within their remit to handle compliance and even prosecute firms who fail to comply. No public data on the compliance or enforcement rates has been made public.
Countries such as the United States have more transparent programmes in place, including online access to industrial emission histories. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, makes public annual data on pollutants by type, sector and source.
In many cases the public can even review a specific firm’s environmental record.
“The EAD is the regulator in this aspect so we regulate the industrial and development sector for air omissions irrespective of what other entities might be doing,” says Mr Lew. “At the end of the day we have a team that goes round and does inspections and audits, and if necessary, [we begin] the enforcement if people are not complying.
“If the industrial sector continues to grow at a very significant rate then the air quality will get poorer,” he says, stressing that his agency’s intention is to not let air quality worsen. “We will increase our regulatory authority.”