Qatar has witnessed a substantial improvement in air quality over the past few weeks,  according to scientists at Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI).

According to the Environment and Sustainability Center (ESC) team at QEERI, this change is in large part a result of the social distancing policies that the State of Qatar has put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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QEERI operates a network of five air quality monitoring stations strategically located across greater Doha, where approximately 95% of the country’s population lives. Primarily, the stations assess air quality in these areas, understand its impact on the health and productivity of the population, and quantify any improvements related to pollution reduction measures. These stations, coupled with an air quality forecasting platform developed by the ESC, uniquely position QEERI to provide maximum impact in the national fight against air pollution.

Mohammed Ayoub, Senior Research Director at ESC, said they observed a 30% decrease in PM2.5 concentrations across greater Doha, which can be directly attributed to people staying indoors and practicing social distancing. He added that there was also a decrease of 9% and 18%, respectively, in ozone and nitrogen dioxide concentrations.

This is very significant as PM2.5 and ozone are known to be the air pollutants with the greatest negative impacts on human health and some of the most challenging to manage.

Stronger decreases were seen in the Chinese province of Wuhan when total lockdowns were implemented to contain the spread of coronavirus. A recent study by Harvard University found a 15% increase in the likelihood of death from coronavirus infection for people who live in polluted counties in the United States.

Long-term exposure to poor air quality can make the population more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses including COVID-19 and can aggravate other respiratory conditions such as asthma, explained Dr Azhar Siddique, another scientist at ESC. And improving air quality during the pandemic alone will not eliminate this risk. The only way to lessen the risk is to reduce the population’s long term exposure by reducing air pollutant concentrations in the long-term.

Ayoub explained that QEERI has been working with national authorities to study the effectiveness of social distancing policies through the monitoring of air pollutants associated with traffic, construction, industry, shipping, aviation and the like.

This has given us tremendous insights into the contribution of local emissions to our overall pollution profile and has provided a real-life experiment of sorts on strategies to further reduce air pollution in the future.

QEERI Executive Director Dr Marc Vermeersch said that over the past weeks, QEERI have realigned their research focus to support Qatar in its fight against COVID-19. They are working closely with key national stakeholders such as the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Municipality and Environment on various issues related to air quality, climate change and environmental sustainability.

Their other research centres are also committed to helping Qatar tackle the challenges related to COVID-19, in the areas of energy, water and environment. QEERI is part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

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