Saudis halved the death toll in Hajj stampede: true count is 1453

After reporting 700 pilgrims dead in a stampede near the holy city of Mecca two weeks ago, Saudi authorities have come clean with the true number killed after pressure from investigators: 1,453 were killed and hundreds remain missing.

Indeed, Shiite Iran in particular has challenged its Sunni arch-rival’s status as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, warning that if diplomacy doesn’t yield an independent investigation, “the Islamic Republic is also prepared to use the language of force.” Nearly one-third of the deaths in the incident were pilgrims from neighboring Iran.

Given all of this, it’s not terribly surprising that a more accurate accounting of the tragedy had to come from an outside source. As Ruth Graham noted last month in The Atlantic, Saudi officials weren’t eager to take responsibility: “In Saudi Arabia, the country’s health minister chalked up the latest incident to a failure to follow instructions, and the head of the Central Hajj Committee blamed ‘some pilgrims from African nationalities.’”

In the meantime, hundreds of worshipers still remain missing and so the true extent of last month’s disaster is not fully known.

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Over 60 dead after crane collapse in Mecca's Grand Mosque

Images and video in this post contain graphic images of death, and may be disturbing.

Air pollution: the holy Hajj's health threat

Reporting this week at the annual American Geophysical Union, scientists from UC Irvine discussed air quality results from samples taken during the 2012 and 2013 Hajj.

The annual pilgrimage brings between 3-4 million people to the holy city of Mecca. Isobel Simpson, the lead researcher on this project, stated that, "The problem is that this intensifies the pollution that already exists. We measured among the highest concentrations [of smog-forming pollutants] our group has ever measured in urban areas – and we’ve studied 75 cities around the world in the past two decades.”

The worst locations were tunnels leading into the Grande Mosque where carbon monoxide levels were up to 300 times higher than baseline measurements, and pedestrians were often walking in large numbers alongside idling motor vehicles. Increases in carbon monoxide are linked to increased numbers of hospitalizations and deaths from heart failure. In addition to carbon monoxide, the team found elevated levels of benzene, black carbon, and other fine particulates that can affect lung function.

The main culprit here that can be addressed by the Saudi government is a lack of regulation over automobiles, gasolines, and exhausts. Currently, there is a significant lack of public transportation in the area, and nearly everyone owns a car. Those cars don't have the devices that are currently required and built into vehicles in the Unites States to limit pollution.

The easiest thing to fix would be separating pedestrians from cars in the tunnels, or at least spreading vehicles out more evenly among the tunnels leading to the Mosque, so that pollutants don't build up as much and negatively affect those walking in. Read the rest