Pollution in Abu Dhabi: The Stats You Need to Know
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Pollution in Abu Dhabi: The Stats You Need to Know

Worried about pollution levels and your health? UMI explores statistics and measures put in place to protect your health in Abu Dhabi.

Pollution in Abu Dhabi: The Stats You Need to Know

 The UAE’s health record has come increasingly under the spotlight in recent years. Levels of chronic disease have risen alarmingly, with cardiovascular disease and cancer claiming many lives. However, some of the more worrying statistics relate to the rise of asthma and respiratory disease across the region, most notably in children.

According to latest World Health Authority figures from 2010, respiratory disease actually killed 2% of the population, but perhaps even more alarming are the statistics which point to the extent to which much of the region’s population are living with asthma, particularly in urban areas.

As the region’s ever-developing capital, Abu Dhabi, particularly, has come under much scrutiny in terms of its record in relation to the rise in asthma, and the extent to which pollution and air quality are to blame. Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is responsible for an estimated 850 deaths a year in the UAE, according to a study commissioned by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. The greatest risk is outdoors, where residents are exposed to unhealthy levels of ozone smog and particulate matter, which are tiny dust specks that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases when inhaled.

Worryingly, respiratory infections are the second most common non-life threatening condition in the capital region, accounting for almost 14 per cent of all episodes in health centers, according to the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD). The most recent published figures from 2011 indicate that a total of 139,092 asthma cases were reported. UAE nationals are 4.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than expatriates and females are 1.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than male. With 59,000 emergency care visits required for asthma and 27,000 of those requiring hospitalization, it’s clear that this is a wide-spread and particularly debilitating concern.

These statistics are not confined to Abu Dhabi, however, and are echoed right across the region with healthcare centers and various academic studies indicating that this is very much a regional issue. Although, lack of clear historical figures and nationally targeted programs to deal with the problem have resulted in patchy government data. A pivotal 2010 survey sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline; ‘Asthma insights and reality in the United Arab Emirates’ interviewed 200 asthmatics across the region and revealed the damning extent of the problem and that “despite the availability of guidelines and effective medication, the burden of asthma in the UAE is unacceptably high”.

The findings went on to say “89% of asthmatics felt that while their general health was at least good, most of them had chronic symptoms and many had limitation of activities and loss of school/work days. High reliance on controller medication and significant underuse of preventive medication is another disturbing finding”. The conclusion was that asthma remains “undertreated and adherence to asthma guidelines is poor”. Children, it seems, are particularly vulnerable and much of this is down to a lack of proper asthma education provided to their parents. These and other independent findings have prompted the regional authorities to take action. A number of studies, along with research initiatives into both air quality and asthma education are starting to be implemented.

The ‘Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’ (GHG) is a recent study to compile data about gases specified in the Kyoto Protocol. The Inventory will be used to help the Abu Dhabi government develop strategies and policies to assess, as well as monitor the levels of emissions. This includes the ‘sinks’ that absorb greenhouse gases, such as managed forests. The project was due for completion by the end of 2012 and the results will be made available soon.

In an effort to better protect public health, the Abu Dhabi environment agency (EAD) is working on developing an air quality forecasting system, similar to the pollen count forecasts delivered in some other countries. The EAD has recently doubled the number of fixed air quality monitoring stations strategically distributed around Abu Dhabi city and its suburbs to accurately capture pollutant levels in the various zones. The idea is to upgrade the air quality information already provided on the Internet and eventually to provide online contour maps of air quality to better predict and thus prepare the public, along with healthcare providers for times when air quality is likely to be poor.

According to EAD, the biggest concern is the tiny particulate matter small enough to penetrate the lungs and even other organs. The two measurements – PM10 and PM2.5 – indicate particles in the air with a diameter smaller than 10 micrometers and 2.5 micrometers respectively. Between 60 to 70 per cent of this small particulate matter in the air is a result of the natural desert environment (sandstorms and pollen, from both native and imported grasses, can trigger acute symptoms in sufferers), and the remaining 30-40 per cent is “caused by humans”. Darryl Lew, executive director of the environment quality sector at the EAD explains: “These small particles get into people’s respiratory tracts and into their lungs, and cause respiratory diseases because they have a lot of problems expelling the particles. It is our most significant air quality issue here in Abu Dhabi. Our primary, secondary and tertiary objective is public health.”

With more data sharing between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the authorities hope to establish coherent plans to tackle emissions. There are other initiatives already in operation. One of these ‘strategic initiatives’ has been to use natural gas as an alternative fuel in the Emirates and a decree was issued which promised that an average 25% of all “committed parties” in the Abu Dhabi would be using natural gas in their vehicles by the end of 2012. These are all relatively recent steps in the right direction and authorities estimate that these efforts will see nitrogen dioxide decrease in the coming years to match acceptable levels.

Perhaps the most important drive is one of education and since 2010 HAAD has implemented an accredited training program on Asthma Diagnosis and management in Children and adults. The program aims to educate healthcare providers to adhere to international standards for asthma management and improve the way asthma is successfully managed in the general population, including the wider introduction of written asthma care management plans, and standardizing the use of Spirometry tests to measure lung capacity.

Healthcare providers and the national media, in particular, have also become involved in the drive to raise awareness, with specialized asthma awareness programs, clinics and media articles aimed at educating the public. This will help people to recognize the various types of asthma and related symptoms, as well as being better informed about what treatments are available in the hope of encouraging people to seek help, particularly for their children.


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