And air quality is only getting worse.
On Sunday, an adviseor to Iran's health minister made a grizzly announcement on state television. In the last year alone, air pollution in Tehran left 4,460 dead, and the problem's getting worse. The news arrived after the entire city had been shut down for five days in an attempt to keep cars off the road and clear the air which residents say stings their eyes and irritates their throats if they don't wear masks or scarves to filter out the pollutants. Like Los Angeles, the Iranian capital is surrounded by mountains that trap in the toxic air, except the pollution in Tehran is four times as bad. In fact, it's one of the most polluted cities in the world, worse than Mexico City, Bangkok and Shanghai. And at this time of year, when winds die down, it makes the city almost unlivable. "My head hurts, and I'm constantly dead tired," a local student told The New York Times this weekend. "I try not to go out, but I can smell the pollution in my room as I am trying to study."
It's not really geography's fault that Tehran's air is so filthy. Thanks to strict sanctions on refined gasoline imposed by the United States in 2010, all of Iran has struggled to come up with enough fuel for its cars, so the people have been improvising and mixing their own -- call it bathtub gas. It's dirty stuff, too. In 2009, the country reported 300 "healthy days" in terms of air quality, but that number had dropped to 150 by 2011. State officials deny any link between the dirty bathtub gas and the pollution problem, while efforts like dumping water on the smog to help dissipate the toxins haven't had much of an effect. They've also enforced strict traffic control measures like only letting cars with even-numbered license plate numbers drive in the city on even-numbered days. That's enough to keep about half of Tehran's cars off the road on any given day, but it's still not enough.
Of course, Tehran's pollution crisis is just a consequence of a much larger political crisis. As the country continues to flirt with war over its nuclear program, sanctions from countries around the world keep getting harsher and harsher. Just a few months ago, the negative impact on the economy got so bad that Iran's currency lost 40 percent of its value in a week's time, leaving many to wonder if the country's entire economy would collapse. Now, quite unfortunately, it's the people collapsing that Iran has to worry about. And the people know it, too. One Tehran woman told The Times, "It feels as if even God has turned against us."
Top image: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire, an Atlantic partner site.