Man-made air pollution is worse than desert dust in the Middle East according to a new study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

In 2017, an international team headed by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry travelled around the Arabian Peninsula on a research vessel in a spectacular expedition. Their ultimate was goal to analyse air pollution in the area.

Various measuring instruments were kept on board to sample aerosol particles and trace gases such as ozone and nitric oxides.

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The researchers also discovered that the Suez Canal, the northern Red Sea and especially the Arabian Gulf are regional hotspots for ozone. The exceptionally strong concentration of ozone in these areas indicates that the harmful gas is also a problem in other densely populated regions of the Arabian Peninsula.

Furthermore, the scientists found that concentrations of nitrogen oxides were significantly higher than the WHO guidelines, contributing to high levels of pollution.

Sergey Osipov is an atmospheric physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. He said: “There are relatively few measurements from the region around the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East in general. That is why this research campaign is so important.

“We used the data in atmospheric chemistry models in order to draw conclusions about general air quality and health consequences.”

High mortality rates

Jos Lelieveld is director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and project leader. He said: “The thresholds for particulate matter are constantly exceeded in the region, which is home to 400 million people.

“While the measurements [were] performed several years ago, looking into the data more closely with new atmospheric modelling tools surprisingly showed that the health hazardous fraction of the pollution particles is almost exclusively human-made.”

In addition to numerous researchers from Mainz, scientists from Kuwait, the Cyprus Institute, as well as from Saudi Arabia, France and the USA, were also involved in the project.

“The extreme air pollution results in an annual excess mortality rate of 745 people per 100,000,” Lelieveld, who is also a professor at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, added.

“It has similar significance to other leading health risk factors, such as high cholesterol and tobacco smoking, and is also comparable to the mortality rate of COVID-19.”

Given that anthropogenic air pollution is a key factor in climate change in the Middle East as well, “measures to reduce emissions are all the more important,” he concluded.