ABU DHABI // Air quality in 600 homes across the UAE is to be analysed by scientists next month to determine whether it could be making families ill. The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) is funding the research by experts from the University of North Carolina, which will examine the randomly selected homes for evidence of ailments caused by poor air quality, including sick building syndrome (SBS).
Long office hours, antiquated buildings and an over-reliance on air-conditioning are factors that aggravate the symptoms of the syndrome, which include fatigue, headaches and nausea. "It's especially common in hot climates like the UAE," said Khaled al Sallal, an associate professor in architectural engineering at UAE University. "The first reason is because of the lack of building maintenance," he said. "Second is because of the weather here. We depend almost entirely on air-conditioning systems, and that's how the problem becomes more significant than in other places."
Specialists working on the study will monitor 600 households of Emirati citizens and expatriates. They will also examine outdoor pollution and respiratory problems as well as obesity and nutrition. Dr Iain Blair, of the UAE University's faculty of medicine, which is also a partner in the study, said assessing indoor air quality could provide an insight into some local health problems but he had never seen reports of SBS in this country.
"It could be that SBS does not exist in the UAE, but that would be surprising because the World Health Organization says that it does exist throughout the world," he said, adding that buildings should be maintained to ensure there is enough air exchange, that ducts are clean and carpets are free of mould or dust. Mr al Sallal said that it was common for developers in the past to design airtight buildings to reduce the cooling load. However, he compared the resulting air trapped inside to the staleness of an aeroplane cabin on a long-haul flight.
"Most buildings have the potential for occupants to have this problem in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," he said. "Some towers have sealed windows and completely sealed glass and you don't have the option to open windows." Over time, bacteria, dust or mould can accumulate in air ducts and cause SBS or "building-related illness" such as Legionnaires' disease, Dr Blair said.Proper maintenance of air ducts and ventilation systems can alleviate sickness, but "many older towers of cheaper quality stay there for years without [ventilation systems] being cleaned", Mr al Sallal said. Occupancy time was another factor: "The causes of SBS are over a long time, so it's not like if you just visit the building for a few hours you will feel tired or have a headache; you have to go every day or live in that building for a long time without regular fresh air."
Automated fragrance puffers, common in the capital's hotels, malls and offices, can emit chemicals known as "volatile organic compounds", which have been linked to SBS. One consultant working with the Government in Abu Dhabi said he and his colleagues had experienced eye and nose irritation as well as respiratory problems. "Myself and a few others had some sniffling; some were coughing from having it blow out in the elevator every five minutes," said the employee, who spends up to 10 hours in the office a day. Dr Micheline Bombaert, who runs a clinic in the capital, said prolonged exposure to poor indoor air was common in the UAE.
"The reality nowadays is even if the windows can be opened, you won't do it because of the dust and construction noise, so people live in closed spaces with AC [air conditioning] on most of the time and that's not healthy," she said. The Urban Planning Council, which is responsible for Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, addresses SBS as a "serious" concern. Salem al Qassimi, associate planner for its Estidama building rating system, said new guidelines also recognised "the smaller components that affect SBS". He said: "People are more aware of these issues and through public outreach, we're educating them about the importance of good indoor air quality."