As a Noxious Smog Descends, Tehran Tries to Ignore It

This week, as a yellow blanket of smog settled in for what is typically a winter-long stay, Reza Shajiee, a prominent hipster socialite, posted a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a gas mask under his motorcycle helmet. The text reads, “My city is better than yours, its air is better than yours,” and is accompanied by an emoticon wearing a gas mask.

One of his followers, @j.barzegar, responded, “Tehran gas chamber, slow death.”

Mr. Shajiee said he posted the picture in protest, but he didn’t know against whom. “No one can solve this, and it’s only getting worse,” he said.

Schools were closed for a second day in Tehran on Tuesday, and many citizens stayed home as the capital was covered in an unusually noxious cloud for a fifth day.

Like many other metropolises in developing countries, including New Delhi and Beijing, Tehran and other Iranian cities regularly disappear under a thick blanket of smog. Every year in the autumn, the pollution gets trapped by the Alborz Mountains that hug the city like an overbearing mother. It happens so often that it is hardly news anymore.

For most Iranians, the pollution is the new normal, a problem so large and complex that it is better just to pretend that it is not there.

Of course, the consequences are undeniable. On Tuesday, a City Council member said that 412 people had died because of the pollution in recent days. Iranian officials estimate that the pollution causes the premature deaths of about 45,000 people nationwide each year.

Hospital wards are filled with coughing patients. Children are told to cover their mouths when they go outside. With the increase in air pollution over the past decade, cases of bone marrow and lung cancer related to high levels of lead in the air have exploded, health experts say.

Iranian officials are at loss. A Health Ministry official told the Asr-e Iran news site that people can shield themselves from the cancerous pollution by staying indoors and drinking lots of milk and eating fresh vegetables. “This will strengthen the body,” said the official, Khosrow Sadeghniyat.

The office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious edict on Monday that said using cars during times of pollution without a good reason was religiously forbidden. A member of Parliament, Elias Hazrati, apologized to the nation on Tuesday, saying the conditions were “shameful.”

Mr. Shajiee, the socialite, said, “There are too many cars, too many people, the only solution is to stop everyone from going out, and everybody knows that will never happen.”

“I hate this city,” he added. “I’ll move out at the first opportunity.”

But he kept driving around on his chocolate-colored Vespa, churning out smoke. “What else to do?” he asked.

Under the city’s yellow blanket, most Tehranis go about their business as if the skies were blue and the air was clean. The traffic jams that define much of Tehran life are as insane as ever, despite emergency regulations aimed at keeping cars out of the center. Cafes and restaurants are full, and people even continue exercising in the city’s many parks.

“I can’t just sit at home,” said Pani Aghavan, 24, a musician. “I need to work and make money.” She wears a mask for protection, one of the few Tehranis to do so. “Most people simply don’t care; they prefer not to think of the pollution and the poison it is,” she said.

There has been pollution in Tehran for quite a while, but it picked up after the Iranian government was forced by sanctions to refine its own gasoline — a poisonous, high-octane brew. The sanctions were lifted after the nuclear agreement with world powers in January, but Iran continues to produce gasoline locally instead of sending its oil abroad for refining.

Many Iranians say that ignoring the problem is their only option. In a country where participation in politics is mostly limited to voting in elections, citizens simply learn to endure whatever comes their way.

“I work two jobs, have no money even to have a child and really don’t see how I can stop this pollution,” said Morteza Hosseinzadeh, who has a master’s degree in theater studies but sells fruit to survive. “Without hardship and taking risks I won’t get anywhere, so I can’t focus on solving such big problems.”

President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday called on citizens to help solve “national problems,” including pollution, an extreme water shortage and unemployment. Warning that there were several crises in the country, especially concerning the environment, Mr. Rouhani somewhat unhelpfully lauded the nuclear agreement for bringing “a breath of fresh air” to the country.

In response, the conservative Javan newspaper posted a picture of Tehran covered in smog with the headline: “Fresh air; Gradual death of citizens.” Other newspapers pointed out that the government’s obsession with car manufacturing was taking a toll. Over the past year, Iranian state-owned car manufacturers have closed deals with the French automakers Renault and Peugeot, aiming to increase the production of cars to two million a year.

“Even one additional car is too many,” said Mojgan Faraji, a journalist who is normally supportive of the government. Auto policies should change, she said. “As long as our gasoline is substandard, every new car worsens the situation.”

Children, elderly people and those with weak lungs are most affected by the pollution, but the effects of the smog go beyond the lungs, health experts say.

“It makes people agitated, depressed and even aggressive,” said Parisa Pakdel, a psychoanalyst in Tehran. “Youths lose their ability to concentrate, become hyperactive and develop sleep disorders. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Source: As a Noxious Smog Descends, Tehran Tries to Ignore It – The New York Times

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