“We are running late because the CEO of RYMCO can’t find parking,” said Najat Saliba, associate professor of analytical chemistry at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explaining the absence of Abdo Sweidan, chief executive officer at Rasamny Younis Motor Company.
It was a fitting prelude to a December 9 press conference unveiling the details of a new study on street-level air pollution in Beirut and its suburbs. Saliba has been analyzing particulate matter in the Beirut area for years; she recently partnered with colleagues at AUB and the National Council for Scientific Research to publish a report on the air we breathe, finding the levels of all sizes of particles to be an average of three to four times greater than the World Health Organization’s recommended level. While that project gathered data using technology rooted in fixed locations, the new study will provide a more in-depth look into where the average Beiruti spends large portions of their time: on the road.
Saliba, undergraduate research assistant Carl Joe Mehanna and engineers at Nissan have outfitted a van with the capacity to take in and analyze particulate matter as it drives along Beirut’s main roads. With the financial support of Bank Audi and RYMCO to the tune of $135,000, over the course of the next year Saliba’s team will be able to remotely monitor air pollution in real time as the van moves through the congested arteries of the city, from the AUB campus up to Jounieh.
“The Highway is our Airway,” reads the slogan along the side of the van, a scary thought for the estimated 500,000 people who commute in and out of the city every day. The health risks of exposure to particulate matter in the air vary depending on their size. PM10, or particles greater than 10micrometers, “affect the throat level,” Saliba explained. “PM2.5 go into the lungs and can cause pulmonary diseases, while nano-particles can go into the blood and even the brain.”
In a city with little industry, the volume of cars is predominantly to blame. Abdo Sweidan, CEO of RYMCO, Lebanon’s exclusive Nissan distributor, suggested a need for emissions standards for imported vehicles.“If a car is not safe to use on the road in Europe, why should it be used here?” he asked, before reminding his audience that it is the consumer that dictates the market.
“We have two problems here: pollution of the air and pollution of the mind.”