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Middle East air quality study bridges borders

An unprecedented effort to collect air pollution data in the Middle East has united researchers in a region mired in conflict.

Scientists in Israel, Jordan and Palestine initiated the four-year project with funding through the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. Research partners included the Jordanian Society for Sustainable Development, Al-Quds University, and the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies.

An internationally recognized expert in developing tools to identify the sources of atmospheric aerosols and using such data to assess the effects of aerosols on health, climate and the environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jamie Schauer served as project advisor. He helped the researchers design the study, choose sampling equipment, train staff to operate the sample collectors, develop chemical analysis strategies and quality-control measures, and analyze the data.

Schauer is among authors of the first research paper related to the study, published online October 5 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The study area spans international boundaries within an area the size of the Los Angeles air basin. The region has air-pollution levels that do not meet World Health Organization standards, says Schauer. “One of the goals of the project is looking at the chemical composition of the atmospheric aerosols so we can understand the sources are and how they can be controlled to mitigate unhealthy air,” he says.

The research team set up air-monitoring sites in 11 locations — including two in Jerusalem — that ranged from urban and industrial areas to costal ports. They collected samples every sixth day for a year, then chemically analyzed the samples and studied the data to identify and better understand particulate matter sources, such as biomass burning, vehicle emissions, or transport from Europe or Africa. One of the key conclusions, says Schauer, was that in some of the industrial areas, levels of pollution, and in particular, toxins, were very high.

From a scientific standpoint, he says the research forged new ground and paved the way for future cooperation among Israel, Palestine and Jordan for environmental research and air-pollution mitigation. “The project was wildly successful in the sense that we’ve collected detailed chemical data about aerosols and particulate matter that has never been collected in the region before,” he says.

Although the researchers gathered data that can provide a baseline for future studies, they also learned to use Schauer’s advanced tools for chemically analyzing air pollutants. That knowledge is key as new research continues to link atmospheric particulate matter to public health concerns, ecosystem effects, and climate change. “As awareness about the impact of atmospheric particulate matter has grown rapidly in the U.S. — it’s still a very new field — there are many parts of the world where studies of this nature have not been conducted yet,” says Schauer. “Helping to develop the research and monitoring capacity to measure and study the sources of atmospheric particulate matter is very important to me.”

Beyond the opportunity to share his knowledge and tools, Schauer says it was amazing to be involved in a project that joined researchers despite political challenges. “The science transcends those challenges,” he says. “The broader impacts of this study are beyond anything that I had anticipated to participate in within my research efforts.”

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10/27/2009