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Sat 30 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Dubai: Takes your breath away

When the authorities say that the air in our city is clean, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Or can we?

The air that we breathe in our cities is something we take for granted, so when the authorities say that the air is clean, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Or can we?

It has been a hot and dusty summer in Dubai, one that began with a big announcement.

In April, developer Emaar informed the world that the Burj Dubai had officially become the tallest man-made structure on earth when it passed the 629m mark.

But visitors to Dubai would have been forgiven had they left the city wondering where the building actually was.

There is little evidence to suggest a threshold below which no adverse health effects would be anticipated. - The World Health Organisation

The issue of air pollution and the many health risks leapt to the forefront of the public consciousness due to the furor over the Beijing Olympics.

The Beijing authority's pre-Olympic spring clean included the closure of the vast majority of the city's construction sites.

Though the Beijing authorities predictably claimed victory in the clean-up, athletes and journalists in Beijing were not so sure. And the world saw the TV images to prove it.

When it comes to official air quality statistics the problem is one of benchmarking. One of the more dangerous airborne pollutants is known as particulate matter 10 (PM10). It is this pollutant that stems from construction sites, among other sources.

A CNN report, a week into the Olympics, highlighted the fact that air that is rated "slightly polluted" by the Chinese, would be rated "very unhealthy" in the US. Air that the Chinese considered "excellent" would be rated "good to moderate" in the US.

This week, Construction Week has learned that the Dubai Municipality (DM) uses an outdated World Health Organisation (WHO) model as its benchmark.

While the DM said that "The WHO guideline level of exposure is 100 - 150 micrograms per m3 (µg/m3) as a mean average over 24 hours," the WHO stated that its guideline level is in fact 50 µg/m3.

Though research into the subject is rare, UK-based professor and government advisor Roy Harrison said that there is a link between construction activity and airborne levels of PM10.

Seconding that was Professor Bassam Abu Hijleh, head of the sustainable design of the built environment programme at the British University in Dubai.

"People can use intelligent observation to see that areas which have high construction rates usually have lower visibility," he said.

Abu Hijleh also raised the health issue, and the effects of exposure to PM10 on the general population are well documented.

"In many areas of the world the increase in pollutants in the air and dust content has significant health hazards, especially in children, such as respiratory diseases and discomfort," said Abu Hijleh.

"Asthma has become a big issue, and it has been highly attributed to a change in the environment as pollutants in the air increase."

Further, the WHO said that, "The risk for various outcomes has been shown to increase with exposure (to PM10), and there is little evidence to suggest a threshold below which no adverse health effects would be anticipated."

The organisation also pointed out that "exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities at the national, regional and even international levels."

Authorities at the DM pointed out regional factors such as the "40-day Shamal" and the resultant dust storms which raise levels of PM10 in the air.

The wind from the Northwest is known as the 40-day Shamal because typically it blows for 40 days. Abu Hijleh said that Dubai had experienced a sustained period of poor visibility even before the onset of summer.

"Even last winter the conditions were not that good," he said. "We had a combination of pollution, construction and all types of conditions. In fact last winter was also very bad."

DM stated that it prepares air quality records "for the information of the public," but then chose to ignore repeated requests by CW to make the data available. CW was instructed to request the information by fax twice and was also directed to a website that did not display the required data.

On top of the health issue, Abu Hijleh voiced concerns that the conditions may have a negative effect on tourism, which accounts for 30% of Dubai's GDP.

"When people want to come here they want to see the sights. If they are taking a tour and they cannot see 100m away then it is not good.

"They see pictures on the internet and they are nice and clear, but then they come here and all of a sudden, all they can see is dust. It does affect them and it will definitely not be exciting for them to come here again."

Erosion and sedimentation control on construction sites is a prerequitite for the sustainable sites field of the Leed rating system, though is not a legal requirement within Dubai as yet. Whether such controls become legal requirements as part of DM's sustainability regulations, to be enforced at the end of theyear, remains to be seen.

Despite the post Olympic glory that the Beijing authorities have been basking in this last week, the issue of air quality in the Chinese capital continually plagued the games.

As a result, air quality is a subject that is sure to be addressed by the International Olympic Committee when deciding on the host city for future games.

With talk of a possible 2016 bid echoing throughout Dubai in recent months, spearheaded by the upcoming Sports City facilities, the issue of air quality is one that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

That's something that we can all see clearly.

What is PM10?Particulate matter 10 (PM10) refers to tiny particles of liquid or solid matter present in the air. Sources are both man-made, such as construction dust or vehicle emissions, and natural, such as dust storms or ocean spray.

Particulate matter is classified with regards to the particle size. PM10 particles are 10 micrometres - 10 millionths of a metre - or less in aerodynamic diametre.

The term aerodynamic diametre is used to measure particle size because particles are irregularly shaped. The aerodynamic diametre is the diametre of the particle as it moves through the air, as if it were spherical at its largest measurement.

The next smallest measurement in common usage is PM2.5. Larger particles, such as those over 10 micrometres in aerodynamic diametre, usually settle due to gravity within hours. PM10, however, can stay in the atmosphere for days.

Health effects are dictated by where in the respiratory tract the particles come to rest. PM10 can penetrate to the bronchi and lungs. Health effects can include asthma, breathing difficulties and, if exposure is prolonged, premature death.

RELATED LINKS:Don't waste your breath!

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SG 12 years ago

This article was very informative. It explains why when we moved from a construction free area to a more expensive but full of construction work in Al Barsha, my kids started falling ill all the time. Dubai has a responsibility to protect the interests of its residents and I hope it will do this. While construction is okay, DM has turned a blind eye to many related ethics that affect us. It forgets that without people, there would be no economy.

gary 12 years ago

Please be informed that due to shortage of Gas in the world I have noticed fossil fuel like High speed diesel ,coal,etc are being used in many Power stations in the world. This also is a cause of worry because lot of sulphur pollutants and particles in the air .

Mohd 12 years ago

On a side note: Dubai never was in the bid. Doha was.