Breathless in Tehran: Smog Shuts Down Entire City

Poor air quality kills in Iranian capital.

This shot of Tehran makes you want to tie on your running sneakers and go for a run, right? (Photo: Morteza Nikoubazi)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

If you live in Estonia, Mauritius, or Australia, be thankful for the fresh air you breathe every day—your countries rank high on the global air quality index.    

But for most of the world’s population air quality is poor, and it’s going to get worse

This week, the city of Tehran is shutting down for two days because of dangerous levels of smog in the air. Officials in Tehran closed schools, universities, and government agencies, and urged residents to stay indoors to avoid unnecessary risks from breathing unhealthy air.

MORE: Traveling to Europe: Breathe the Air at Your Own Risk

Tehran, a city of 13.5 million people in northern Iran, is no stranger to the kind of pollution that keeps people indoors.

Iran had 80 “smog holidays” in 2010, and each one cost Iran’s economy an estimated $130 million in financial losses—not to mention lives. Green Prophet reports that 27 people die each day in Tehran from air-pollution-related illnesses.

Smog is a mix of pollutants in the atmosphere, primarily made up of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. It can cause inflamed airways and diminished lung function, making people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses susceptible to breathing and heart problems.

Exposure to particulate matter of any kind can cause lung cancer, decreased lung growth in children, and adverse birth outcomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A study released earlier this year found that women who were exposed to high levels of certain air pollutants while pregnant are more likely to have children with anxiety, depression, and attentions problems by ages six and seven.

The bad news is that smog is all too common: cities and towns around the world have been beset by thick blankets of toxic air.

In 2011, hundreds of flights were grounded and some major highways closed in Beijing, after air quality was determined to be “hazardous” by Chinese officials. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, also had to announce an emergency plan to deal with persistent air pollution in advance of the thousands of people descending on Beijing for the Olympic Games in 2008.

Ongoing air pollution in Milan in 2011 prompted the Italian government to issue a temporary ban on all vehicular traffic. Air pollution had exceeded European safety standards for 18 days in a row in Milan, often by a factor of two.

Here in the U.S., more than one in four Americans are endangered by unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air they breathe, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. Thirteen thousand Americans are killed each year by particle pollution from power plants.  

Coal-fired power plants are the worst culprits. Over 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants come from 400 plants in 46 states, according to an American Lung Association report

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reviewing whether to set stronger limits on the amount of particle pollution that can be present in the air. Environmental and public health advocates have argued that the current limits are not conservative enough, given the prevalence of coal-fired power plants and the number of Americans routinely breathing unsafe air. 

“The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended stronger standards for particle pollution, and the scientific evidence is very clear that we need those new standards,” Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association (ALA), told TakePart.

Nolen’s organization is encouraging citizens to call on the White House to support these new standards. Also on the website you can find the heartbreaking story of Lydia Rojas, who lost her 15-year-old daughter, Steph, after Steph suffered an air-pollution-related asthma attack during a normal school day.

Research conducted by the American Lung Association found that if the EPA chose to change its particle pollution standards to those being advocated by the ALA, the agency could prevent the premature deaths of 35,700 people.

The Obama administration will likely make a decision on December 14.

Should the White House stronger standards for particle pollution in the United States? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

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