You can see the air in Tehran—a faintly acrid orange haze that obscures the towering mountains that ring the sprawling metropolis. The white marble facades of the city’s soaring cement buildings are covered with a thick layer of gray soot. Walking around the city center, women, children and the elderly can often be seen wearing facemasks, or clutching veils across their faces. In this smog, blinking stings the eyes; breathing burns the throat. And in the mornings, when the air is particularly bad, the sidewalks are empty.
But the traffic—a mass of 3 million cars gridlocked and spitting out toxic exhaust—grinds on.
According to the latest World Health Organization numbers, four of the 10 worst-polluted cities in the world are in Iran. The number one slot was awarded to the small Iranian industrial city of Ahvaz, which has three times the concentration of pollutants as Beijing. Tehran, though not in the top 10 polluted cities overall, checks in at number 82 (of 1099), with roughly four times the concentration of polluting particles as smog-blighted Los Angeles. It’s also the country’s capital and the largest city in western Asia, a metropolis of over 8 million people with an outsized political influence in the region and a growing global presence.
When asked how the pollution in the country came to be this bad, many Iranian citizens and government officials point to U.S.-led trade sanctions that cut off access to the country’s much-needed motor gasoline imports, and the technology needed to effectively produce home-grown gas. The sanctions, they say, have forced Iran to use outdated equipment and produce toxic formulations of cheap petroleum just to keep the country’s 21 million cars from running on empty.
But some experts say the problem is more complicated, and the blame should be shared. They argue that the sanctions, though problematic, merely took the lid off of festering issues that had been building for many decades: a drastic population increase, mismanagement and—in some cases—corruption.
The air pollution crisis is now pervasive. “It’s the single worst problem people in the city have to deal with, day in and day out,” says a Tehran cab driver who had been complaining about the high pollution levels that day. “We can’t not talk about it.”
During bad periods, school is cancelled for a week at a time; the sick and elderly are told not to leave their homes; and people are banned from driving their cars on designated days of the week.
And people are dying from what they inhale. In 2013, the Health Ministry announced that up to 4,460 Tehran residents died due to air pollution, equivalent to roughly 25 percent of the total number of deaths in the city each year.
Debates over the city’s growing air pollution woes have intensified—and there has even been talk of relocating the capital, in part to get away from the lethal pollution. In 2013, a parliamentary proposal to choose another capital city received 110 yeas from the 214 Chamber-members present for the vote; supporters of the change cited the pollution, debilitating traffic jams and high earthquake risks. Such a move would be incredibly costly, so it’s unlikely to happen, but the fact that it is being seriously considered shows that many Iranians finally realize they are in the midst of an environmental disaster.
continue reading: Choking to Death in Tehran – Newsweek.