The average Cairene inhales more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution every day, according to the World Health Organization. That means that every Cairo resident’s daily air pollution intake is akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes.
Industrial plants — especially factories that burn mazut, a heavy, low-quality fuel used in generating plants — are the biggest culprits, as they emit large amounts of greenhouse gases that feed global warming. With much of Egypt being desert, seasonal sandstorms also contribute to lower air quality, and the growing number of vehicles adds to the problem.
Aliya Abdel Shakour, who heads the Air Protection Advisory Unit at the National Research Center, says air pollution can be defined as the introduction of chemicals, particles or biological materials into the atmosphere in a high concentration, over long periods of time. Pollution eventually affects the health of humans, animals and food, and can cause discomfort.
“Pollutants can be in the form of solid particles, liquid droplets or gases, and they can be natural or man-made,” says Abdel Shakour.
Winds pass through the Western and Eastern deserts so fast that they can carry significant amounts of dust and sand over long distances, covering Egypt’s cities in a yellow haze.
“These dust storms usually contain silica, sulfate and carbonate molecules, which clog people’s sinuses and can be extremely uncomfortable,” Abdel Shakour says.
The scientist explains that natural air pollutants present a huge challenge to scientists, because they cover huge spaces and are mostly uncontrollable.
“However, planting tall, sturdy trees in residential areas can act as an efficient wind and sand breaker,” she adds.
The growing number of cars, factories and power plants, and the use of old heating methods such as burning coal and wood are considered to be the main man-made sources of air pollution. Cairo has more than 2 million vehicles, which release tons of sulfur, carbon dioxide and other pollutants daily, according to a 2011 study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
Car exhaust fumes contain worrying levels of heavy metals that have been proved to cause cancer.
“We shouldn’t be proud of all the cement and steel factories established by Western countries in Egypt over the past two decades,” says Abdel Shakour, who says these highly polluting industries have ruined the health of workers and nearby residents.
Although applying environmentally friendly processes to factories is costly, it remains a much cheaper option than getting rid of the pollution emitted by unclean factories.
“Under the supervision of the Environment Ministry, Law 4/1994 obliges any factory to conduct an environmental impact assessment even before it’s established,” says Abdel Shakour. “Many international standards have been imposed to guarantee the factories’ commitment to health and safety principles, and a lot of local plants have recently started applying them.”
But the reality is that despite promising new measures to hold the industry accountable for air pollution, the Environment Ministry fails to enforce the laws.
Yasser Hassan Ibrahim, who heads the National Research Center’s air pollution department, says gases, aerosols and dust particles are the main culprits.
He says that air pollution is one of the main causes of heart and lung diseases.
“In addition to causing heart and lung diseases, the particles carry different sorts of heavy metals like lead, zinc, nickel and cadmium, which infiltrate the lungs and increase the risk of cancer,” he adds.