BEIRUT: The Eastern Mediterranean suffers from the world’s highest levels of air pollution after Southeast Asia, findings published by the World Health Organization this week revealed. For those living in Lebanon, the news comes as no surprise. The coastline of the small Mediterranean country is often obscured by thick smog, easily seen from higher altitudes.
Heavy traffic often leaves motorists choking on toxic emissions.
“Lebanon has a major air pollution problem. We’re not as bad as Beijing, but it’s severe,” said Dr. Alan Shihadeh, Dean of the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture at the American University of Beirut.
Shihadeh, an expert on air quality, ranked exorbitant car exhaust, diesel generators and cigarette smoke as the top three enemies destroying the quality of health in the country.
“Emissions are far higher than need be. Diesel generators alone increase our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals by 40 to 50 percent. If we could figure out our power supply system and traffic, we could really reduce our exposure to air pollution.”
The country’s natural topography does not help, he added.
Lebanon’s mountains and air patterns exacerbate the contaminated air by capping pollutants and holding them along the coastline.
“We are swimming in the gases that we create and weather patterns don’t help us. We’re very vulnerable to our air pollution problems.”
In the Eastern Mediterranean region, “an estimated 500,000 die yearly from diseases related to air pollution,” WHO’s Dr. A. Basel Al-Yousfi told The Daily Star. “Globally, nine out of 10 people are breathing air beyond WHO determined safe levels.”
The director of the Center for Environmental Health Activities at the WHO office in Jordan added dust to the list of agents destroying our lungs. However, secondhand smoke is the main culprit inflaming air quality at the indoor and local levels, Yousfi said.
For those looking for remedies, head to the polls Sunday for Lebanon’s first general elections since 2009: The specialists said the solution lies in the hands of a competent government. Clamping down on Lebanon’s suffocating air pollution issues requires major changes in the country’s aging infrastructure, Shihadeh told The Daily Star.
“There is no excuse not to have clean air in a place like Lebanon. We don’t have [heavy] industry which is usually the main source of air pollution in other countries.
“The best thing we can do is vote in the right people in the upcoming elections ... people who actually care about the public welfare and have a plan to deal with air pollution, traffic and the electric sector,” he said.
For the AUB professor, Lebanon’s poor air quality is largely a result of a “dysfunctional political system.”
However, following the CEDRE conference in Paris last month that raised $11 billion in grants and loans for development and infrastructure projects across the country over the next five to 10 years, change could be coming.
But while projects have been proposed for green energy production and more efficient electricity creation, Shihadeh was skeptical that lawmakers would use these funds to bring about lasting change.