Iraq’s Soil Turning White

Initiative aims to find ways to protect farmland in Iraq from the rising levels of salt in soil.

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


The Epic of Atraasis, an ancient Babylonian story tells of how fields in ancient Mesoptomia turned white after salt seeped into the soil.

Almost four thousand years later, Iraq is losing valuable farming land to rising levels of salinity in soil and groundwater due to a failing drainage infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair.

In December 2010, the Iraqi government called on local and international organisations to conduct research to improve the management of saline soil and water resources. “The Iraq Salinity Project is an initiative taken by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA),” says Luigi Cavestro, project coordinator. “Currently, it’s estimated that 25% of Iraq’s irrigated land — 2 million hectares — does not permit crop cultivation.”

The land lost to salinity is causing food and income insecurity, affecting the poorest people most, he adds.

Financed by the Australian and Italian governments, the initiative is assessing the state of irrigation and drainage infrastructure. It will then offer advice on the best cultivation practices for different salt-tolerant crops, and develop ways to improve soil, irrigation and water and drainage management for salinity control.

The researchers had discussions with farmers to determine what problems they encountered and to see how they are dealing with the problem now. Cavestro expects the results of the research to be released by February 2013. “We are at an advanced stage of the research, but need to validate our results in the coming months.”

The researchers are looking at five pilot sites in central and southern Iraq: Dijaila, Mussaib, Abu-Khaseeb, West Gharraf and Shat-al-Arab.

Cavestro is hopeful the initiative will guide Iraqi policymakers to best address the problem of salinity while “increasing agriculture production with long-term sustainable actions.”

“This will probably take time. The project works at different levels — farmers, district, regional and national,” he adds.

Mushtaqe Ahmed, director of the Center for Environmental Studies and Research in Oman, conducted an environmental salinity study for the Gulf state. He says the Iraq study is important for the whole region. “Salinity is a serious problem in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf states. The problem is there to stay. So the solution has to deal with how to live with salinity.”

Business of stem cell banks questioned

Umbilical cords are in demand for therapies that exploit neonatal stem cells, but some private cell banks are accused of taking advantage of parents.

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Virgin Health Bank

Private stem cell banking is a steadily growing business in the Arab region, with parents increasingly aware of the potentially life-saving benefit of preserving a newborn’s umbilical cord. Cord blood treatment is currently used in therapy for a number of cancers; blood, metabolic and immune disorders. While harvesting and storing blood from the umbilical cord is not a controversial medical practice in the Middle East, there are several ethical issues that need to be considered.

Umbilical cord blood transplantation, even from a mismatched donor, is an effective alternative treatment for a bone marrow transplant if marrow from a matched donor is unavailable. Hind Humaidan, director of the Cord Blood Bank set up in 2003 at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Saudi Arabia, says her hospital has performed more than 3,500 bone marrow transplants, but that finding a suitable donor is often a major obstacle.

Since the cord blood bank’s launch, it has collected 3,725 UCB samples. Humaidan says the non-profit public cord bank has benefited patients, and has resulted in huge savings for the hospital. “We used to pay US$30,000 to US$35,000 to import and transplant UCB. The cost to transplant a local unit from our bank is US$7,300.”

The American Academy of Paediatrics, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the World Marrow Donor Association have all questioned the benefit of private stem cell banking, arguing there is no real advantage in autologous transplantation. The banks have also been criticized for aggressive marketing to expectant parents. “You cannot tell people if you don’t donate your baby’s umbilical cord blood cells (UCB), your child may possibly die. That’s just wrong,” said Rajan Jethwa, head of Virgin Health Bank (VHB) in Qatar, speaking at a panel discussion at the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy in February 2012

Jethwa argues that the aggressive marketing of some private cell banks is driven by a commercial imperative which can override promoting the medical value of stem-cell preservation. Although VHB, headquartered in the United Kingdom, has existed as a private enterprise since opening in Qatar in 2009, a new public-private model will come into effect this year under which a sample of the child’s cells will be banked privately, and the remainder, with parental permission, will be placed into the public bank. “Thus social enterprises can make a profit and do good,” Jethwa explains. “I like to think we are the architects of Arab stem cell banks.”

The state will pay the bank to operate the public donor bank, which will be fully managed by VHB.

Therapeutic potential

Medical professionals encourage the donation of UCB to public stem cell banks since, like blood banks, they benefit the wider community. Humaidan, suggests banks should accurately explain to parents the terms of donation and how it can benefit others. “Most mothers, if approached correctly, agree to donate cord blood.”

“In Saudi Arabia, large families are common, so there’s a larger donor pool for UCB,” says Humaidan, suggesting this would solve the problem of the lack of matched donors. Since the bank opened in 2003, the hospital has done 219 successful UCB transplants.

Both Humaidan and Jethwa confirm that once parents donate umbilical cords to a public bank by informed consent, they concede control of the tissue. “However, if it’s needed for a transplant and it’s still available, it will be given to the patient,” says Humaidan.

Qatari women scientists aim for the top

Four young female researchers are trailblazing their way to becoming leading stem-cell scientists in Qatar’s thrust to become a top country of research.

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Heba Al-Siddiqi explaining her work to Sir Magdi Yacoub.Nature Middle East

Stem cell research began in Qatar in 2007 when the Qatar Foundation joined forces with the Baker Institute, a policy institute and part of Rice University in Houston, Texas. Their goal is to help develop stem-cell research in the small Gulf country.

One of the first steps taken by the collaborations was to form the International Programme on Stem Cell Science and Policy, charged with examining the ethical and religious issues involved in stem-cell science, relevant to Arab culture, and engaging with local communities. Five years on, the plan is bearing fruit.

Hamda Al-Thawadi, Halema Al-Farsi, Heba Al-Siddiqi and Sarah Abdullah joined the Qatar Science Leadership Program (QSLP), a QF initiative that aims to groom Qataris to take leading roles in Qatari science and one day steer its ambitious national programme of research.

The QSLP sends students to train at some of the best universities in the world. And 2011 saw Al-Thwadi and Al-Farsi go to one of France’s largest universities, University Paris-Sud 11, Al-Siddiqi go to Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Massachusetts and Abdullah go to the University of Cambridge in the UK.

At the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy held this past week in Doha, Al-Thawadi, Al-Farsi and Al-Siddiqi presented their research on ovarian cancer and obesity-related diseases. Al-Thawadi practiced medicine for two years before applying for the QSLP. “In the past there was only one path for a medical doctor, treating patients. But when QF started this programme, they created a new path for doctors or graduates interested in science,” she says. “This is a perfect chance for Qatar to create home-grown researchers.”

A bioethics class at Cardiff University in the UK got Al-Siddiqi hooked. “There was a lot of controversy over using embryonic cells, so I took a class which made me read more about stem-cell research, and decided to go into it.”

Relevant research


Hamda Al-Thawadi standing next to her poster on ovarian cancer and thrombosis.Nature Middle East

The first research paper Al-Siddiqi’s co-authored was published inNature Cell Biology in February 2012. “It felt amazing, especially after all the hours of hard work,” she says.

Al-Thawadi and Al-Farsi decided to work on ovarian cancer as it is highly prevalent in the Middle East. Al-Thawadi incubated cancer cells in culture with Protein C, a coagulation factor, to test its effect on thrombosis of ovarian cancer cells, which led to a significant increase in metastasis. “This gives us a clue to outline preventative measures for thrombosis in ovarian cancer patients,” she explains.

For the past year, Al-Farsi looked into ways to reprogram certain cancer stem cells. “They contain PD117, a factor found only in stem cells which allows them to regenerate. The same principle can be applied to other cancers.”

Abdullah realised halfway through medical school in Nottingham University in the UK that research interested her more. She returned to Qatar with a neuroscience degree to look for an institution that would fund her to “research stem cell and neurological disorders, which aren’t very common in Qatar at the moment.”

Abdullah’s focus is on the role of the transcription factor oxo-3a in myelin-forming cells called oligodendrocytes. When the factor disappears from cells after trauma or disease it can lead to neurodegeneration. “I hope to promote formation of differentiating cells by studying stem cells and look at why oligodendrocytes fail to remyelinate,” Abdullah elaborates.

None of the budding young researchers feel they’ve faced gender discrimination. “It’s better to be a female,” laughs Al-Siddiqi. “I feel more privileged, and I think I’m treated better and there’s a lot of support.”

Living in Paris, Al-Farsi at first felt a bit out of place, and felt judged wearing a hijab, but has since settled in. “I feel accepted now.”

Abdullah feels she is playing an important role in dispelling misconceptions about Arab women. “As an Arab woman I think people abroad are shocked at how modern and knowledgeable we are. For a long time Muslim women have made a name for themselves, and I’m just joining a group of established women.”


The original article mistakenly stated Heba Al-Siddiqi published her first co-authored paper in Nature. It was published in Nature Cell Biology.

  • References

    1. Ahfeldt, T. et al. Programming human pluripotent stem cells into white and brown adipocytes. Nature Cell Biology 14, 209-219 (2012)doi:10.1038/ncb2411 | Article | PubMed | CAS |

Ancient Egypt in 3D

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

The Valley of the Kings; The Karnak Temple Complex and the Temple of Hatshepsut. Just three of the marvellous attractions of Luxor in Egypt, the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which have lured people from afar for millennia. Now, new 3D technology may offer virtual visitors the change to gaze at those ancient wonders without as much as a tourist bus in sight.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have used new imaging technology to construct 3D models of these ancient wonders.

Shooting an Egyptian temple with the CAVEcam at nightGreg Wickham

The teams employed CAVEcam photography: two cameras rigged to snap the shutters simultaneously, each taking 72 photographs for panoramic views of 360° vistas. Only three such systems have ever been built, one belongs to its designer, Dick Ainsworth, and the other two are at KAUST and USCD.

“There is no system other than the CAVEcam that can capture 3D images covering the complete sphere — 360 degrees by 180 degrees,” says Ainsworth.

“The CAVEcam has two cameras sitting side by side which replicate both the distance and view of the human eye. So as a result you have a left and right eye perspective of photos taken,” explains Adel Saad, systems administrator at KAUST’s Visualisation Lab. The cameras reposition automatically at regular intervals for subsequent photographs to capture the entire scene, from sky to ground.

Software stitches simpler images together, but more complex scenes need to be stitched manually, taking from 12 hours up to a week. “The stitching process is automatic only in the most trivial sense. It is fairly easy to combine multiple images of a scene to create a single composite photograph. Creating matched stereo images that accurately represent the complete spherical view as seen from each eye, however, is complex. The entire stereo image must be created to accurately duplicate what our eyes see.”

With KAUST boasting one of the most advanced imaging facilities in the world, the next step is to integrate sound and touch into the experience. The team envisions cyberarchaeology, whereby historic sites are preserved and made digitally available in special, 3D visualization facilities, such as those available in KAUST. “I can look at a 3D image of a piece of ceramics and feel the holes and little chips in it, without it actually being there,” explains Saad. He expects such technological developments may be seen in as little as six months to a year.

It can also allow researchers from around the world to study artefacts without worrying about shipping them overseas or accidentally damaging or contaminating them.

Currently, the images and 3D visualization lab are only accessible to KAUST students, faculty and collaborating researchers. Saad hopes the 3D immersive images will be made available to the public in the near future.

COP17 report on climate change in Arab world

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Climate change is a threat to poverty reduction and economic growth and threatens to undo many of the developments in recent decades in the Arab world, according to a World Bank draft report presented at the COP17 in Durban, South Africa.

The report, Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries, is produced in partnership with the League of Arab States (LAS) to provide information on climate change in the Arab countries, as well as technical guidance on how to adapt to a changing climate.

“Climate change poses a challenge to Arab countries in achieving our Millennium Development Goals,” commented Fatma El Mallah, advisor to the secretary-general of LAS.

Many Arab states are already feeling the effects of climate change, with 2010 being the warmest year on record since records began in 1850. The temperature is predicted to rise 0.3–0.4°C per decade, one and a half times the global average, according to the report. Most of the Mediterranean region will become drier and rainfall will decrease.

“The region will face a 10% reduction in water by 2050,” warns Dorte Verner, climate change coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. Today, demand for fresh water exceeds available supply by 16%, likely to increase to 50% in 2050,”

In Jordan, the fourth driest country in the world, this fall in water supply would be disastrous. At present, it needs 1.5 million cubic metres of water to meet demands, but only 900,000 cubic metres are available. A temperature increase and rainfall reduction, compounded with a growing population, will result in food insecurity and water insecurity.

Economic impact


“Women are the most engaged in agriculture, but least in decision making processes.”

“Climate change is not a stand-alone issue,” says Amam Dababseh, director of sustainable development at the Amman Institute for Urban Development in Jordan. “It is linked to economic development and solutions need to converge across society, environment and economy.”

The cost to the economy could be severe. The report contends increased droughts will reduce GDP growth by 1% and increase poverty levels by up to 1.4%.

According to El-Mallah, Arab countries import food worth US$30 billion more than they export. “Droughts are increasing in intensity, and it’s a reality we have to live with. With climate change, Arab countries will grow more dependent on food imports,” she said.

Nearly 70% of the Arab world’s population live in rural areas, and will be the most affected. “The local food production system will come under stress”, said Verner. “The agricultural output could decrease 20-40% by 2080 due to high dependence on climate sensitive agriculture.”

Although the Arab climate has always been harsh, coping strategies used for centuries are inadequate for coping with climate change. The report cites the example of Syria’s Bedouin herders suffering from a drought lasting several years, who were forced to move to the outskirts of cities, losing their livelihood and way of life.

Disproportionate effects

Climate change disproportionately affects the poor and has a greater impact on the daily lives of women. Poor people have little capacity to respond to prepare their home for more extreme weather, and in Yemen, for example, women must travel greater distances to fetch fresh water — some trips taking seven hours a day.

“Women are the most engaged in agriculture, but least in decision making processes,” comments Verner. “We have to act now — together and differently,” she asserted. “The vulnerable must be taken into account when planning policy.”

Based on the report, the team has started to draft an action plan, Diversification, Integration, Adaptation, Leadership (DIAL). “Economic activities must be both at household and national level to improve climate resilience, and must be integrated into all projects, not standalone adaptation projects. We need a holistic approach”, stresses Verner.

The report will inform the fifth IPCC report. Leila Dagher, an economist at the American University in Beirut, sees the report as an important first step. “The next step should be a fully-fledged economic adaptation study, to produce a range of estimates to help Arab countries be better aware of their climate finance needs”, she said.

El Mallah pledged that LAS will do all it can to help the Arab world adapt to climate change. “We welcomed the proposition by the World Bank to compile this report. Climate change is on the political agenda of Arab summits, since the region is highly impacted by the effects.”

Green Schools Planned in Gaza

The United Nations plans to build a sustainable, carbon-neutral Gaza. As a first step, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has partnered with award-winning green architect Mario Cucinella to build a green school in the Gaza Strip.

“When we saw Mario’s work, we were immediately interested in it for Gaza,” said Ugo Bot, UNRWA’s external relations officer. “With Gaza’s precarious water and electricity supply, the school would be of educational and social benefit.”

Cucinella, founder of Mario Cucinella Architects, favours simple construction systems over expensive technology. “In the past, people in the Middle East built beautiful buildings with a natural heating and cooling system. That capacity is now forgotten,” he said.

Green technology is considered expensive owing to the initial investment typically involved, but Cucinella has demonstrated it can be affordable. At a cost of US$2 million, his school will cost little more than a normal school built by the UNRWA, which cost on average about US$1.8 million.

Green design

A concrete slab will form the foundation for the school, with the bedrock beneath acting as a first ‘bioclimatic moderator’, which can regulate the building’s internal temperature. Cucinella explains that pipes will run through prefabricated hollow concrete pillars passing through the school that can heat or cool the building’s interior to keep a tepid temperature within the classrooms. The pipes will suck hot air from outside, travel through the interior and cool it before being expelled through solar chimney ventilators.

Polycarbonate mashrabiya panels, a type of projecting window with a wooden frame popular in the Middle East in the 19th century, are another natural source of ventilation.

The curved roof is designed to collect rainwater and store it in separate storage tanks. Shrubbery on the roof will also act to cool the building. One storage tank will hold potable water, the other water for the sanitation system. A ground wetland purification system will recycle wastewater for toilet and irrigation use. Plants and bacteria remove pollutants from the water, with plants absorbing nitrates and phosphates and bacteria consuming organic waste.

The school will source its energy needs from local renewable resources. “It’s off grid-and self-sustaining. We aren’t reliant on expensive technology,” said Cucinella. Amorphous thin solar photovoltaic panels covering 400 square meters will provide the power.

Bot hopes the school’s sustainable approach will spread beyond its walls. “It can become a meeting place for the community, where they have good access to clean water and electricity. But also, it can change mindsets in Gaza. Very few people are familiar with green architecture and recycling of rainwater. It’s a learning experience.”

Technology transfer is high on UNRWA and Cucinella’s agenda. “We want to share this technology with communities, so they can use it to build their own schools or use this design in their homes.”

UNWRA plans to build another 20 such schools in the Gaza Strip. “We are adopting green technology, and want to mainstream it into our work in all sectors and in all areas, not just Gaza”, said Bot. “In developing green standards, we’ll be creating jobs and providing training opportunities.”

Pulmonary Diseases May Be Highest in Middle East

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria as seen using a colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM).CDC/ Dr. Ray Butler

A review of pulmonary diseases in the Middle East claims the region could have the highest incidence of pulmonary infections in the world.

“The wealth of pulmonary pathologies encountered in the Middle East probably surpasses all other regions of the world,” said Atul Mehta, chief medical officer at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi and lead author of the study, which was published in Respirology1.

People living in the region are more prone to respiratory disease owing to the environmental conditions, genetics and lifestyle particular to the Middle East. Last year, a study employing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on the earliest known Egyptian mummy to receive an autopsy, provided evidence that pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) was a burden on the region thousands of years ago2.

The authors organized the contributing factors into several categories: environmental factors, infections, genetic-idiopathic diseases, sleep disorders, lung malignancies, pleural diseases and miscellaneous respiratory conditions.

Various causes

Extreme weather variations and allergens from the desert exacerbate asthmatic conditions. Children are especially affected by exposure to cigarette smoke and household allergens. However, a Gallup poll revealed that 25% of people in the Middle East smoke cigarettes, which puts it on par with other regions. Socially, the ubiquitous water-pipe and smoking are responsible for pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease. The regular burning of incense is also cited as a pollutant.

“The burden of respiratory illness is a drain on both patients and healthcare systems.”

“Bronchial asthma is more prevalent in urban areas, especially in children. Pneumonia occurs more frequently where people live in closed spaces, again with children most at risk,” says Yaser Abu El-Sameed, pulmonologist at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City and a co-author of the study.

“Water pipe smoke could affect children in the womb. Secondhand smoke could damage the lungs of children because of the fine size of particle matters emitted from smoking,” explains Monique Chaaya, an epidemiologist at the American University in Beirut who has studied the effects of water pipes and maternal smoking. Fine particles settle deeper into the lungs, and children breathe more rapidly than adults, thus inhaling more pollutants.

Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis has a foothold in the region, accounting for 0.9–5.4% of new cases of TB. In 2010, the World Health Organization published a report, Multidrug and Extensively Drug Resistant TB, revealing the rise in its incidence in the Middle East3. Pneumonia caused by both viral and fungal infections is also common, with an overall mortality rate of 13%.

A culture of family relatives marrying has resulted in genetic conditions, such as sickle cell disease, Behçet’s syndrome and primary ciliary dyskinesia, which can have a significant impact on pulmonary health. Lung cancer is also a common disease.

El-Sameed says there are many ways to decrease the incidence of respiratory disorders, such as offering vaccinations for bacterial influenza and pneumonia. “Physicians can provide patients with medication to help them quit smoking. Counselling should also be offered. Education programmes to improve public health awareness are significant.”

If the rise in respiratory disorders is not curbed, it will exact a heavy socioeconomic impact, contend the authors. “The burden of respiratory illness is a drain on both patients and healthcare systems. Respiratory disorders are a major cause of death and disability for many people. The results are lost productivity, missed educational opportunities and extremely high healthcare costs,” says El-Sameed.

Reducing Drag Through Vapour

Reducing drag through vapour


Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

A vapour-encased sphere can move at much higher speeds through a liquid due to reduced resistance.Ivan Vakarelski

If water is poured on a hot metal plate above 100°C, it will skate across the surface rather than begin to evaporate. According to the 225-year-old Leidenfrost effect, a liquid produces an insulating vapour layer when it comes in contact with a solid surface that is hotter than its boiling point: known as the Leidenfrost point. Two researchers decided to take on this phenomenon and published their results in Physical Review Letterslast month.

Ivan Vakarelski, a chemical engineer at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, and Derek Chan, a professor of mathematics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, decided to see what happens in reverse: they dropped hot metallic spheres into a fluorinated liquid with a boiling point of 56°C.

“This makes it easier to initiate the ‘inverted’ Leidenfrost effect — a thin film of vapour covering the metal,” explains Vakarelski. Just as the vapour layer moves liquid across the surface of a hot plate, it allows for faster movement of the spheres through the liquid. “We thought that this could be the perfect system to model the drag reduction by [the] vapour layer,” he adds.

Research had demonstrated the reduced hydrodynamic drag that vapour layers can have on objects moving through liquids. Vakarelski says their study is the first measurement of the limit of drag reduction a vapour layers can produce. “We showed that the Leidenfrost vapor layer can reduce the drag on a sphere by up to 85%.”

Possible uses

Any object moving through a fluid experiences drag, or resistance. The drag coefficient, the measure of an object’s drag, of the vapour-encased sphere reduced from 0.4 to 0.07, a change of 571%.

These findings could help engineers optimize liquid flow through pipes and make microfluidic devices more efficient, says Vakarelski. It can also be applied on a larger scale, such as in shipping or submarines.

A reduced drag could save energy and reduce carbon emissions. “For ships or high-speed underwater vehicle achieving even 10% or 20% percent would be a substantial result,” says Vakarelski.

The research is fundamental and it will take a few more years before findings can be commercially applied though. Vakarelski hopes that devices exploiting the Leidenfrost effect could be ready for testing in a couple of years. “Our focus is on the formation and sustainability of bubble layers in water which will bring us closer to practical applications. We hope that this next stage will be completed before the end of this year.”

Alaa Ibrahim, an astrophysicist at the University in Cairo (AUC) says the research is original and of great value to the industry. Ibrahim also envisages application of the technology in shipping. “However, you will have to spend energy to heat up the surface of the moving body and this in itself opens up another interesting research investigation to minimize the energy consumption and safely insulate the cargo.”

  • References

    1.  Vakarelski, I. , Chan, D. et al. Drag Reduction by Leidenfrost Vapor Layers.Phys. Rev. Lett. 106, 214501 (2011) | Article | PubMed | ADS | ChemPort |

Air Pollution Threatens Health in Beirut

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

A graph showing the average distribution of nitrogen dioxide over Beirut. Areas in brown have the highest values.Saint Joseph University

About 93% of Beirut’s population is exposed to high levels of air pollution, according to a study by researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Air pollution is a major environmental risk factor for poor health and causes about 2 million premature deaths worldwide each year.

The researchers presented the findings of a two-year study on air pollution at a seminar at AUB on 6 May. The study was carried out by the AUB and Saint Joseph University (USJ) in Beirut, in collaboration with the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS). It involved collecting samples of air from various regions in Beirut between 2008 and 2010.

In 2010, across the city, the average concentration of nitrogen dioxide, a harmful air pollutant, was 58 micrograms per cubic metre of air. This exceeds the maximum average concentration recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO): 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

Nitrogen dioxide is produced by burning fossil fuels. Most of the nitrogen dioxide in cities is released from motor vehicles. Each car emits 1.6 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide per year. To offset the emissions from a single vehicle, at least 160 two-year-old trees would need to be planted each year. Lebanon has a large number of cars on its streets — the same number per capita as Japan, despite Japan covering an area that is roughly 36 times larger.

“In Beirut, as in many other overpopulated capitals, traffic is the main source of air pollution,” said Najat Saliba, a chemist at AUB who led the study.

Saliba proposed imposing staggered working hours and encouraging car pooling and bicycle use to ease the traffic on the streets of Beirut. She also suggested promoting public transport and building electric train lines.

Such strategies have been successful elsewhere. Istanbul, one of the most polluted cities in the world in the 1980s, managed to improve air quality by improving its public transportation network and installing an electric tram system.

According to the researchers’ findings, the average amount of airborne particulate matter, which in Beirut is created by dusty streets, wear and tear on tyres and incomplete combustion of fuel, is at least double that recommended in the WHO guidelines.

Breathing in large amounts of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter increases the likelihood of respiratory problems. These pollutants can inflame the lining of the lungs and reduce immunity to lung infections. Pulmonologist Marie-Louise Coussa-Koniski, from Rizk Hospital in Beirut, warned that “the number of cases of asthma, rhino-sinusitis and interstitial lung disease in Lebanon has been rising significantly over the past decade”. And the overall prevalence of asthma in Lebanon is at least 50% higher than that in Europe or the United States.

Such heavy pollution affects the cost of public health care. “The country could gain up to $16 million from lost work days and save up to $3.2 million in hospital visits annually if it would reduce its particulate matter by only 10 micrograms per cubic metre,” said Jad Chaaban, an economist in AUB’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.

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