TEHRAN, Iran – The inhabitants of this metropolis of 12 million people and perhaps as many cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes have seen something new on the streets in recent months: the city itself, unobscured by the thick layer of smog that normally blankets the capital.
For years, pollution in Tehran seemed only to grow worse, the stench of exhaust more dizzying, the number of patients rushed to hospitals with breathing difficulties ever increasing.
But a number of government measures, including rationing gasoline and limiting traffic in the city center, have noticeably changed this landscape – and given back Tehran residents the stunning vistas of the Alborz mountain range that surrounds the city.
“It feels much better than before,” said Marzieh Jannati, 27, shopping with her 4-year-old daughter in south Tehran, an experience that used to burn the eyes of those unaccustomed to the high pollution levels. “Even without having a look to the pollution index panels in our area, you can see the difference between these days and years past.”
Like Denver, mile-high Tehran’s thin air and curtain of mountains make it a natural harbor for pollution. Industries on the city’s outskirts and a glut of old vehicles combined to lower air quality.
Officials began grappling with the air pollution problem in 1993, when they established the Air Quality Control Co. and began publishing daily pollution indexes, with color-coded billboards, in busy public squares.
A team of Japanese experts arrived to give pollution monitors three-day courses on how to detect ozone, exhaust, lead and other poisons in the air. The biggest problem, they were told, was the number of inefficient cars spewing unfiltered exhaust.
Iranian authorities began requiring pollution-reducing catalytic converters on new cars. Long-delayed plans to build subway lines in major cities were launched.
But air quality continued to erode. The World Bank, which lent Tehran $20 million to clean up the air in 2003, said the pollution in Iran’s major cities exceeded World Health Organization standards by 40 percent to 340 percent. Authorities regularly closed schools and asked frail residents to remain indoors on particularly bad days.
The lowest point might have been Nov. 21, 2002, when authorities asked every resident of Tehran to stay indoors because carbon monoxide concentrations had reached emergency levels, according to the World Bank appraisal.
A study published this year by scholars at Tehran University estimated health damage from air pollution in Iran at over $7 billion, more than 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Another report published in 2005 by Tehran University’s School of Public Health concluded that rising carbon monoxide levels were contributing to heart failure, the leading cause of death in Iran.
But all agree there has been a turnaround in recent months.
A rationing program for heavily subsidized gasoline implemented this year sparked riots but might have forced money-conscious drivers to stay off the roads.
Strict controls and heavy fines placed on peak-hour traffic in central Tehran encouraged more commuters to use public transportation, including a three-line subway system that has won plaudits for its efficiency but criticism for its limited coverage area.
Tehran introduced a new fleet of natural gas-powered buses, ordered old taxis and buses to convert to natural gas engines and imposed rules forcing dilapidated cars off the roads.
In the past three years, about 250,000 Iranian cars have been converted to natural gas or hybrid engines, according to statistics provided by the Iranian Fuel Conservation Organization. Two years ago, the country’s main auto manufacturer stopped production of the Peykan, a beloved but gas-guzzling and pollution-spewing sedan based on Britain’s old Hillman Hunter.
The change can be seen in the city’s skyline, which was often shrouded in a brown haze, and in the lack of long lines of pedestrians wearing surgical masks in an attempt to filter out some of the poisons in the air.
“Until a few months ago, when I went home I felt something heavy was choking my lungs, though I used to wear the mask,” said Mehdi Papi, a traffic policeman stationed on Islamic Revolution Street near Tehran University. “Now, I don’t wear a mask and I feel much better back home at night.”