I’m listening to the sound of the generator with new apprehension ever since I heard AUB Professor Alan Shihadeh last month present a study he conducted on air quality in Hamra.
It showed that air pollution levels in West Beirut spike dramatically at 6 AM (chart above), which is when the power is regularly cut in the city and generators kick into gear.
The survey, “Electric Power Rationing and Diesel Generators: Cancer in the Air” was conducted with professor Najat Saliba and saw AUB students install pollution detection devices on balconies across the Hamra area, where generators can be found everywhere from alleyways and basements to sidewalks:
Not far from cafes:
But other generators are located on rooftops, so exhaust positioning does not really make a huge difference, Shihadeh said. Neither does filtration. Generator exhaust is the third leading airborne carcinogen, after second-hand smoke and automotive traffic, the survey found:
However, the study was conducted before the non-smoking law 174, which banned smoking indoors in public places.
Just as AUB was influential in getting that legislation passed, the hope is that academics and citizens can rally to revamp the power grid so generators will no longer be necessary. That may take some heavy lifting with the generator industry currently valued at some one billion dollars in annual revenues. And it can be a territorial, cut throat business with some unsavory characters involved, as I found out when writing a piece about generator entrepreneurs
for the Daily Star.
On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see students applying science to our everyday problems, making it possible to translate those results into potential lobbying efforts, as was done with the smoking law.
Some tips in the meantime:
-Avoid outdoor exercise when the generators are on. Shihadeh said pre-6AM corniche running is ideal.
-Air filters. Shihadeh could not say how effective they were, but said he installed three in his children’s room. I’m getting some!
-Face mask? Shihadeh said he wore won when he used to commute around the city on a bike.
So how does Beirut compare to other cities? Average particle pollutant levels in Beirut exceed WHO guidelines by 100 percent. This is equivalent to smoking two cigarettes per day, one of the panelists said. While Beirut is not as bad as Shanghai, it compares to Los Angeles “20 years ago” said Professor Najat.
Also worth noting: the survey only covers Hamra which gets a lot more sea breeze than other parts of Beirut that are further from the coast. Yet due to a capital-centric rationing system, most parts of the country go without power for up to 12 hours per day. That’s almost four times more generator usage than Beirut, and a lot more exhaust!