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Anthropogenic Air Pollution Contributes to Health Risks

Desert dust was considered the primary cause of the Middle East’s growing air pollution.

Anthropogenic Air Pollution Contributes to Health RisksA visible layer of air pollution stretches out across the sea. Photograph taken from the research vessel during the AQABA campaign. Image Credit: © 2022 AQABA project.

According to a recent study conducted by an international group of researchers that included scientists from KAUST, pollution from anthropogenic sources increases health risks and is a significant climatic factor throughout the region.

The conventional thinking was that dust carried by storms over the Arabian Peninsula dominated air quality over the region,” stated Sergey Osipov from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Chemistry, whose group researched the project, along with KAUST’s Georgiy Stenchikov and Alexander Ukhov, and collaborators from King Saud University and The Cyprus Institute.

Our research has demonstrated that hazardous fine particulate matter, which is distinct from the less harmful coarse desert dust particles, is largely anthropogenic in origin and is a leading health risk factor, as well a significant contributor to climate change.

Sergey Osipov, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

According to Osipov, air pollution contributes to around 745 per 100,000 excess deaths in the area each year, a rate comparable to other major health risk factors like smoking and high cholesterol.

Earlier studies on air quality across the Middle East overstated the presence of desert dust, obscuring the contribution to poor air quality from anthropogenic sources.

Such models produce semicorrect answers for the wrong reason, because they poorly represent a significant component of anthropogenic fine particle pollution in the region.

Sergey Osipov, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

According to Osipov, the scarcity of observation data and a poor representation of emission sources have, “significantly hindered our ability to model the chemical composition of the atmosphere in the region.”

The group, headed by Jos Lelieveld from MPI for Chemistry, gathered measurements made at sea as part of the worldwide collaboration known as Air Quality and climate in the Arabian Basin (AQABA) to address this lack of data. The observations were taken over two months in the summer of 2017, and they covered a range of atmospheric conditions from pristine in the far-off atmosphere to intense pollution and dust storms.

Analysis of the AQABA data provided comprehensive restrictions on the dust size distribution, allowing for a better simulation of dust's mass flux and life cycle. The team was, therefore, able to recreate the chemical composition of the aerosol over the entire size range.

We found that particulate matter from anthropogenic sources accounted for around 53 percent of aerosol visible optical depth and induces a radiative forcing on the climate equivalent to that of the natural dust in the region. Our study highlights how anthropogenic air pollution is a leading health risk and important climactic factor across the Middle East.

Sergey Osipov, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Journal Reference

Osipov, S., et al. (2022) Severe atmospheric pollution in the Middle East is attributable to anthropogenic sources. Communications Earth & Environment.


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