Business, Finance & Economics

Tracking pollution in Lebanon

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Photo of Jounieh, Lebanon (Image by Wikimedia user Heretiq (cc:by-sa))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Beirut's streets are filled with aging Mercedes belching clouds of toxic fumes into the air. The city has experienced a building boom that's led to more people using more vehicles on the country's already crowded roads. Dr. Najat Saliba is one of them.

She's a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut. Saliba wanted to monitor the levels of toxins a driver inhales while stuck in traffic because it’s an experience she's intimately familiar with.

"The idea came because I'm stuck in traffic every day, so I wanted to monitor how much Particulate matter I was breathing," Saliba said.

Studies here have shown air pollution levels are sometimes three times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization. But Saliba didn't just want to know how much fumes a driver fumes a driver might suck in stuck in traffic, she wanted to know the collective pollution from driving around the city.

So, with help from a few car companies, she got a van equipped with $75,000 worth of pollution monitoring equipment that will travel the streets for two hours, twice a day in heavy traffic.

And so began a study with an extremely long name, "Monitoring Particulate Matter Emissions During Traffic In Real Time On A Busy Street In Lebanon."

"The good thing about this machine is that we can monitor it remotely," said Carljoe Muhanna, the medical student in charge of the project. "I can monitor it from home or wherever, with a laptop. So I go in and then I have all the values in front of me. I don't even need to be inside the van. Every six seconds the values the machine is recording I can read it at home."

Muhanna said a website that will show the position of the van and the pollution levels. It will even be on Facebook, on the page of the Nissan franchise in Lebanon that's funding the project. Not coincidentally, Nissan has a new "green car" coming out called the Leaf.

"Nissan as a corporation is under a green evolution," said Abdo Sweidan, head of Rymco Motors. "So everything that helps in the awareness of pollution and particulates in the air is of high importance to us."

Sweidan was asked if an auto company's goal is to sell more cars, and if more cars lead to more air pollution, doesn't that put his goals, and the goals of the study, at odds?

"Absolutely not," Sweidan said. "If we sell good cars, we are going to sell more good cars. If there are safety compliances in this country that are dictated by policy makers to only import good cars for the environment, then manufactures of environmentally friendly cars will be able to sell more of the same."

In other words, the more Nissans he sells, the fewer old Mercedes there are on the streets spewing. Many cars in Lebanon are so old they'd be junked in Europe or the US. Sweidan said he's all for tighter environmental regulations, and enforcement, on vehicles.

He said as it stands now, "the only regulation that exists is that there are no regulations."

Regulations, Sweidan said, would make the air cleaner, cut down on air pollution and help him make a few bucks in the process.

The new pollution monitoring van, Sweidan and other supporters said, will hopefully increase the public's awareness about the need for such regulations.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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