It is no longer necessary to smoke to inhale lethal air. Atmospheric pollution, nowadays, kills more people than tobacco. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that one in eight deaths in the world they were due to the pollution of the air, and now it is known that they are more. This problem corrodes Najat Saliba (Damour, 1961), the Lebanese expert in analytical and atmospheric chemistry who received the L'Oréal-Unesco award last night. For Women in Science for Africa and Arab Countries.
Saliba, from the American University of Beirut, leads the study of environmental pollution in Lebanon and the Middle East, and also struggles to implement public health policies that respond to its overwhelming data. It created the first record of atmospheric pollutants in Lebanon, and showed that the incineration of garbage in the country has led to an increase of 1,500% in the concentration of toxic particles. In addition, it is a world authority in the analysis of carcinogens and dangerous molecules inhaled by nicotine delivery systems (cigarettes and their alternatives).
"Women are more inclusive [que los hombres], they are not afraid to share and they are open to collaboration, which is vital to develop holistic and efficient solutions, "Saliba said when she was awarded the prize for women scientists. EL PAÍS spoke with her yesterday in Paris, before the awards ceremony held at Unesco's headquarters.
Question. Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to the health of the world. Why?
Answer. Because it kills. Bush [al menos] to seven million people a year. Air pollution exceeds expectations: it was believed to cause seven million deaths annually, but the latest data from this week show that they are actually more. The problem is that science has not been updated, yet. Air pollution is a more recent problem than tobacco. He has been doing tobacco research for about a hundred years, perhaps, but we are only now beginning to understand the relationship between air pollution and health very well.
P. What are the main causes of death by contamination?
Inhaled particles can reach the bloodstream and affect the organs
R. It seems that many diseases are associated with air pollution: cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems, Cancer... and a relationship with obesity, Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases has also been found. But I'm not a biologist. I collect the data [sobre las moléculas tóxicas] and I pass them on to biologists and doctors to determine their consequences. As we speak, in just one minute, we will have inhaled billions of oxygen molecules, and with them also enter toxic particles that are deposited in the lungs. Some penetrate into the alveoli, and when that happens they can get into the bloodstream and affect the organs.
P. Not all airborne particles can get into the blood.
R. My work focuses on so-called fine particles [PM2.5], which have a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers [0,00025 cm]. I study the chemical components of these particles in cities. A very famous investigation of the 80s, the Study of the Six Cities, from Harvard University, analyzed six different cities with different particle concentrations. It showed a direct effect of the increase in fine particle concentration and mortality.
P. Why did you decide to study chemistry, and air pollution in particular?
In Lebanon I felt there was a lot to do about air pollution
R. I entered chemistry because I like to understand the larger set from the smallest details, the macro-set from the micro-level. My passion for chemistry has always accompanied me. In the United States, I had training in atmospheric chemistry and, upon returning to Lebanon, I felt there was a lot to do there in terms of air pollution.
P. Are the atmospheric problems in Lebanon, or even in the Middle East, very different from the rest of the world?
R. The problem is general to the entire planet, and it really depends on how active each government is in regulating emissions. Many cities were highly contaminated in the past, for example London in the 1950s suffered the Great Fog, but now this is not the case because measures have been taken to reduce the pollution of the city. I'm not saying it's the perfect city, but it has changed. Developed countries faced this problem in the past, and understood the value of regulating emissions. Now, developing countries are beginning to experience the same, there is a temporary delay. Some cities are ahead of others, but emissions do not stay in one place. On the one hand, it is good that local emissions become a global problem because there will be more people aware. The sad thing is that we are all going to die of environmental pollution if we do not act.
Developed countries understood the value of regulating emissions
P. Monday, an article from the scientific journal PNAS He noted that in the United States, white people produce more pollution, while blacks and Latinos suffer more from its consequences, from the distribution of their homes and the services and products they consume. Have you observed a global problem of inequality in the causes and consequences of pollution?
R. Of course! This is something very important: environmental injustice. When a country builds a source of emissions, for example a factory, it does not look at its more prosperous areas, it goes to the areas of poverty: it places the factory there, the workers come, they work, and they return to their good neighborhood. Only the poor have to live, work and stay there. This is a common problem, not only of the United States, it is everywhere. Environmental injustice is one of the issues that I am most opposed to
P. It also studies the properties of inhaled toxic molecules when smoking. What do your research say about alternatives to cigarettes, such as vaping or the hookah[alsocalled[tambiénllamadosisha, hookah or water pipe]?
When you smoke a session of 'sisha', equals two packs of cigarettes in one hour
R. I refuse to use the word vaping, because it is deceptive: it seems that you speak of inhaling only steam, and that is not true. We have found that there are toxic products [por ejemplo monóxido de carbono], and its concentration really depends on the taste and power of the electronic cigarette in question. In some cases the concentrations are higher than in a normal combustion cigarette, and in others they may be very low. The hookah is terrible, much worse than electronic cigarettes. When you smoke a session of sisha, equals two packs of cigarettes in one hour. By this I mean the inhalation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which include a carcinogen type 1A, the benzopyrene. A person who smokes the water pipe inhales in a session the same benzopyrene that is in two packs of cigarettes. And if you sit next to someone who smokes it, passively inhale the equivalent of two cigarettes.
P. In addition to doing basic research, he is concerned about seeking the implementation of policies based on his results.
R. I do not do it alone I spread, yes, I am an activist, yes, but I do not do it alone. I need the NGOs, the people who take our results and take them to the streets and pressure groups, and who knock on the doors of politicians to say: "Hey, we have new results." If you call me for a meeting, I go with my presentations and my data, and I collaborate with anyone who can take the cause further. I also collaborate with Lebanese scientists involved in various causes, especially that of the sisha. The sisha It has become a real epidemic in Lebanon, because most young people, from the age of ten, smoke it. They think it's safe.
P. What have you achieved with this activism, and what do you think is still to be done?
I would like to see a worldwide organization that advocates for clean air on the planet
R. We have pushed for the implementation of a Lebanese law that prohibits smoking sisha in closed public spaces, like restaurants. Unfortunately, it is not fulfilled. My dream is to implement a global clean air strategy. Many countries have a clean air law for their own region, but I would like to see a global organization that advocates for clean air on the planet. I want an authentic show of will, not just regulation at a national level ... people have to want to work together for a clean air. I prefer that we reach a consensus and not impose measures from above.
P. Do you feel that there have been significant burdens to your investigation?
R. Lebanon is a developing country, and the resources are not great. For example, to buy a chemical compound in my laboratory I have to wait three months. There are also many seized compounds that we can not buy. It is not easy to do science in these countries, we have more obstacles than scientists in other parts of the world, but we have come this far.
P. The L'Oréal-UNESCO prize For Women in Science help?
R. I hope you put the focus on these problems that developing countries have. It has given me the opportunity to talk about what we do in Lebanon, and this is already very important, because it does not affect only us, it is a global problem. The speaker to share it with the rest of the world is the most valuable.
In its 21st edition, the prizes of the L'Oréal Foundation and Unesco to make women visible in science have been extended for the first time to mathematics and computer science, disciplines where the gender gap is greatest. The five female laureates receive a prize of 100,000 euros for their research.
Najat Aoun Saliba (Africa and Arab Countries). For his pioneering work in identifying carcinogens and other toxic air pollutants in the Middle East and in modern nicotine delivery systems.
Maki Kawai (Asia Pacific). For his discoveries in the manipulation of molecules at the atomic level, to transform materials and create innovative materials.
Karen Hallberg (Latin America). For the development of innovative computational approaches that allow scientists to understand the physics of quantum matter.
Ingrid Daubechies (North America). For his contribution to the numerical processing of images and signal processing, providing standard and flexible algorithms for data compression.
Claire Voisin (Europe). For his pioneering discoveries that have allowed to solve fundamental questions about topology and Hodge's structures of complex algebraic varieties.