Posted on April 25, 2020

Air pollution is harmful – we know that – but it becomes deadly in a global pandemic of a disease that attacks the lungs. With water quality taking precedence, it may seem that the quality of air we breathe is taken for granted. Polluted air has killed millions around the world, and a large number of deaths caused by COVID-19 have been linked to pre-existing health conditions similar to diseases caused by air pollution, according to Hanadi Al Thani (pictured).

Studies have shown that over the past few years, air quality in Qatar, especially in its major urban centers, has been deteriorating due to rapid industrialization, urbanization, and increasing traffic. Qatar is also known to have a dusty climate, and Al Thani’s research is in close relation to the impact this has on human health and environment.“For example, we have found out that 60 percent of this dust comes from natural resources while the rest comes from human activities such as transportation and construction. While the natural sources of dust might not impose critical health impacts, it still stimulates allergic reactions, such as asthma, in a large number of children and adults.

“Hence, we have recommended several sustainable policies and solutions for air pollution problems in urban areas, including planting certain types of trees that have proven efficiency to enhance air quality such as Samar and Sidra trees. These findings can be relevant to other countries in desert regions as well,” Al Thani, a Ph.D. candidate at Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s Environmental Sustainability program, says. With the current pandemic forcing everyone to stay indoors, air quality in various parts of the world has improved. Satellite images of China, for example, showed a dramatic reduction in air pollution. And research has shown a drastic “decline in NO2 concentrations compared to early January when power plants were operating at normal levels in industrial locations,” says Al Thani.

We take the air we breathe 2 [].jpgIn Qatar, traffic has reduced by a large measure due to online work practices and the closure of malls and recreation areas, and “this would have significant impact on air quality – reducing harmful emissions much below the normal levels. Hence, it is expected that fewer asthma and emergency entries, due to respiratory diseases related to dust, would be admitted to hospitals,” Al Thani says. But the question remains – if air quality has improved amid the current lockdown, are there lessons to be learned for future actions and policies? “Indeed, this is a very important point to highlight. Although the current situation has improved the air quality in Qatar and other parts around the world, we have learned many lessons from COVID-19,” says Al Thani.

The first lesson is that work and learning can be successfully accomplished online, she says. Also, that people should maintain hygiene and implement safe distancing while shopping for necessary items. Al Thani suggests that although the long-term impact is unpredictable, especially if life goes back to normal once the crisis ends, it is the responsibility of governments to implement strict measures on the use of transportation and other emission polluting practices where a balance is achieved between productivity and acceptable air quality.

As someone who is at the forefront of research that is designed to help build a more sustainable Qatar, and as a mother of four and a researcher, Al Thani’s vision of herself was to contribute to building a sustainable environment in Qatar. “It was something I have always aspired to do and it’s only the beginning for me as my research will expand,” she says. But surely her contribution comes with a tough ask – of balancing her work life and her personal life. “There is no perfect formula to balance being a mother and having so many commitments. If I did, I would solve a lot of mothers’ problems. Sometimes I wish there were 30 hours instead of 24 in a day, but I work with what I have.

“Compromise is my solution, and it is something I learned to do quite well. I may not be doing activities with my kids every afternoon, but I will make sure to make it up to them during the weekends. “The love for STEM fields is growing nowadays with all the exciting new breakthroughs and I would love my children to explore them. And there is no better way of encouraging them than to do it myself first.”

Al Thani has won several awards for her project related to the characterization, source apportionment and mitigation of particulate matter in urban Doha. And with more and more women joining STEM industries across the world, Al Thani wishes to see more Qatari women add to this growing global list. “To anyone considering doing research – it’s hard work. There will be a lot of challenges, and it can be time consuming, but always think about the benefits it will have on your country and the world. It would be your way of changing the way we look at certain things, you will make an impact with your research. Learn to ask the right questions, be inquisitive and professional.”

Through her work, Al Thani hopes to not only inspire women but male Qataris as well to become researchers and contribute to the world.