A major problem with not monitoring environmental indicators regularly, such as the case of Lebanon, is that the severity of an environmental problem is never clear. For example, there is a general consensus in Lebanon that pollution is high. There are various studies that measure the pollution in certain areas, but continuous national data that has been collected over a long period time that shows the level of pollution is either non-existent or inaccessible.
Not only is there no regular monitoring of indicators, there are no data at the governorate, district, or town level. For example, there is no recent data that shows the air pollution levels of major urban centers of Tripoli and Beirut. The Central Administration of Statistics is a governmental organization that is responsible for collecting, producing, and disseminating statistics. The latest publication they have on the environment dates back to 2006. The data in this report is even more dated: sea pollution data was from 1996, air pollution data was collected in 2001 and the 2004 population was used. Developing interventions and policies on dated information has a higher potential to be ineffective.
There are some recent studies on air pollution that have been carried out by universities and international organizations. These studies give us a glimpse of the severity of the situation. A recent study published by the World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations of the University of Washington has been able to shed some light on Lebanon’s air pollution problem. The report, The Cost of Air Pollution, contain the results of the 2013 Global Burden Disease Study. This study measures illnesses and premature deaths from various risk factors (including air pollution) from around the world.
The air pollution indicator that was measured for this study was PM2.5, a very fine particulate matter that has a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers and can easily penetrate deep inside the lungs causing various types of diseases and health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. PM2.5 is normally emitted into the atmosphere from combustion sources (motor vehicles, power plants, etc.). The WHO’s air quality guideline is 10 µg/m3 (annual) for PM2.5. Using satellite-based estimates, Lebanon’s annual ambient PM2.5 level in 1990 and 2013 were recorded at 24.39 µg/m3 and 23.56 µg/m3 respectively. Lebanon is not the only country that exceeds the WHO’s guideline, the report found that 87% of the countries had a higher PM2.5 level. There is no legal limit in Lebanon for PM2.5.
The study’s estimate for total number of deaths from air pollution in Lebanon was 1,160 in 1990 and 1,816 in 2013. This constitutes about 0.0429% of the population in 1990 and 0.0407% in 2013 (using the World Bank population estimates for 1990 and 2013). In 2013, Lebanon ranked third in deaths per population from air pollution among Arab counties after Sudan (0.0706%) and Egypt (0.0477%).
While this is not enough data to make any major conclusions on Lebanon’s air pollution over the 23 years of study, it does display the stagnant situation that has prevailed for 23 years. More tests should be done to compare the levels of other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, total suspended particles, and other ambient air indicators to get a better understanding of the situation.
Sources of Air Pollution
Knowledge of air pollution sources is needed to properly address it. In 2011, the results of a joint study by the American University of Beirut (AUB), University of Saint Joseph, and the National Center for Scientific Research found that 93% of Beirut’s population is being exposed to high levels of air pollution. The data was collected between 2008 and 2010 and found that one of the main contributors to air pollution was traffic. The average level of Nitrogen Oxide was 58 µg/m3 in 2010, higher than WHO’s maximum allowable concentration of 40 µg/m3.
Another source of air pollution is from the generators used to offset the shortage of electricity. In another study by AUB, carcinogens were measured on the balconies of 20 residencies in the Hamra neighborhood. The results show that the generators operating for three hours a day account for 38% of the daily carcinogen exposure in the Hamra area. This could be much higher in urban areas that suffer even longer durations of electricity rationing.
In addition, air pollution from open burning of waste has increased dramatically over the past three years due to the garbage crisis. An AUB study that measured air samples near sites exposed to trash burning showed an increase in all level of pollutants in the atmosphere. This increases the short term risk from 1 to 18 persons per million.
Without continuous data at the various governance levels (governorate, district, city, etc.) developing policies to reduce air pollution and evaluating the successes of these interventions will be difficult. It also makes holding policy makers accountable for the lack of improvement in air quality a highly complicated task.