x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

What to do with carcinogenic Sharjah smog?

The response from the authorities to this problem needs to be a mix of education, enforcement and eradication

We have grown accustomed to reports about the parlous air quality of some of the world’s biggest metropolises, but it comes as a surprise to learn that Sharjah has days when the level of contaminants in the atmosphere exceeds that of cities that have become bywords for smog: Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi.

Researchers from the American University of Sharjah, working with the University of Miami, Florida, were specifically testing for volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen. They found it ranged between 0.34 parts per billion and 3.2ppb in Sharjah, compared to an average in Mexico city of 0.6ppb, 2ppb in Beijing and 4ppb in Tokyo. They also found elevated levels of ethane, propane, acetylene, butane and toluene.

In this, it is important to make sure one is not comparing apples with oranges. Air pollution takes many forms and Beijing’s famously bad air quality is primarily to do with what is known as PM2.5 – fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less – which is hazardous to health because the particles are drawn deep into the lungs. The UAE’s sandstorms, by contrast, tend to involve bigger and less hazardous but still potentially harmful particulates of PM10 scale.

The benzene levels detected in Sharjah deserve to be taken seriously. The World Health Organization states that “no safe level of exposure can be recommended” for airborne benzene because it causes cancer. United States occupational safety rules put the recommended maximum exposure in an eight-hour working day at 1 part per million, or roughly 300 times the peak recorded in Sharjah.

The response from the authorities to this needs to be a mix of education, enforcement and eradication. Education would include a way to advise the residents of Sharjah when benzene levels are peaking so they can minimise their exposure. Enforcement would come in the form of forcing industries that emit benzene – the primary source, contributing more than cars and trucks – to upgrade to decrease their emissions.

Eradication would be in the form of minimising benzene sources in the first place. One obvious example would be to extend Dubai’s Metro service into the emirate to ease the traffic snarls for which Sharjah is notorious.

With these measures, we might once again be able to breathe freely.