Ahvaz, Iran, November 2, 2013 - A first rainfall of the season sends thousands in the world's most air polluted city to hospitals

Profile Pic Ramtin Bashi was born in a Persian Iranian family. He came to adulthood in Iran of the Islamic Republic when the new regime had effectively eliminated all nonconforming social and political voices from the national public arena. He left the country clandestinely and reached Canada. Since then he has lived and worked in Montreal, Los Angeles and Vancouver. The part he has loved the most is being with so many people of all backgrounds. At the same time he has kept in touch with his native country through media, personal contacts and communities abroad. He is also founder and a volunteer for World Media in English. He considers himself a secular minded believer in real democracy.

Introduction (4 minute read)
Coverage in International Media (7 minute read)
Coverage in Persian Language Iranian Media (35 minute read)
Conclusions (5 minute read)


With mention of air pollution in cities people are usually reminded of a particular few like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Delhi, Cairo or Beijing. These are of course large and important population centers but not the worst. It is rarely mentioned in the media that in worse affected areas adverse health effects can be much more severe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the most air polluted city in the world, and by a wide difference is city of Ahvaz (spelled Ahwaz in Arabic pronunciation) in Iran. And this is not a small town; with more than 1.3 million population it is the largest city of province of Khuzsetan located in the south western corner of the country bordering Iraq and Persian Gulf.UN map of Iran Similar levels of pollution are suffered throughout the rest of the province of five million people, caused in part by operation of oil and gas industries here which accounts for eighty percent of the country's total, and in part by other man-made and preventable damages to the environments.

The World Health Organization ranks air pollution levels based on annual average concentration of polluting airborne particles that are smaller than ten microns in size (a micron is a millionth of a meter). This number is called Annual Mean PM10 and its physical unit is micrograms per cubic meter of air volume (a microgram is a millionth of a gram). This number does not show variations of pollution above the measured average, nor chemical compositions of the pollutants and their possible health effects, but it is used as a general measure. You can find WHO's information and databases for more than 1600 cities worldwide by entering keywords like "air pollution" and "cities" in a search engine. Looking at WHO's tables we can see that annual Mean PM10s in low double digits are common and not considered overly polluted, in high double digits and hundreds less common and in the two hundred range much less common indicating high levels of pollution.

There is only one recorded case with an Annual Mean PM10 of over three hundreds, and that is the Iranian city of Ahvaz with 372 in 2013. Three other Iranian cities are right now listed among the ten most polluted in the world. Capital Tehran's Annual Mean PM10 is close to a hundred, while because of long periods of dryness and stillness of the air actual conditions get much worse.Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran Since 2010 with arrival of cold season the government has had to order schools and government operations and industrial activity shut and half of vehicles off the roads sometimes for days, bringing most activity in the city of fifteen million to a halt. Recently the problem has been exacerbated throughout the country by use of low quality transportation fuels having to be produced domestically because of Western-imposed sanctions on imports. In particular, concentrations of benzene, lead and sulphur have far exceeded limits that are considered allowable in countries with proper environmental regulation and enforcement. By government's own admission every year thousands of residents of the country's large cities die of illnesses directly related to air pollution [1].

Certainly in a country with a more responsible and accountable government such a problem would never have been neglected or allowed to reach such proportions without much more being done about it.Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran You may say the people only have themselves to blame. True to a point while here, as some of the following media reports indicate, besides government's mismanagement and inaction a significant part of the pollution originates from outside the country's borders, or is otherwise compounded by Western sanctions. Otherwise Iranians, or at least many among them have fought and sacrificed for democracy and representative government for over a century now. In the uprisings of thirty five years ago leading to the revolution of 1979 too, these were the goals to the majority of the people.

On night of Saturday November second after a typically long period of dryness in Ahvaz a first autumn rainfall caused widespread shortness of breath and feeling of suffocation.Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran In three weeks following, twenty thousand people had showed up at the city's hospitals and clinics, a hundred had been kept hospitalized and eleven taken to intensive care units. And it is certain that the real extent of health degradation caused to millions of people of this region goes much further than what can happen with a rainfall (Back to top).

Coverage in International Media:

These events were naturally news in Iranian media and coverage continued for some time. But how many people outside of this country heard about them? especially with any level of detail or background to help them make connections and form a bigger picture? The answer to the first question is very few, and to the second practically none as far as we could find. The results of a search in English language international media up to a month following the events are shown in two tables below. (This search was done using our guidelines as shown on "Contribute" page of this website - NF: No Results Found, and numbers in parentheses next to website addresses refer to links quoted at the bottom of the tables. To see the links click on the name of the media organization shown in bold. Where available, we have also included a pdf copy of the media reports which you can click to open from our site.)

Search results for coverage of air pollution hospitalizations in Ahvaz, Iran from November 2 to November 30, 2013 in
English Language Primary International Reporters Websites: Category One

(Numbers in parentheses refer to results quoted below this table. NF: Not found)
State News Agencies State Broadcasters* For Profit Media Public, Nonprofit or Civil Society Media* Majority or Official Language
USA Associated Press (AP): ap.org**(1)
United Press (UPI): upi.com**(NF)
Voice of America voa.gov(NF) cnn.com (NF)
usatoday.com (NF)
wsj.com (NF)
nytimes.com (NF)
latimes.com (NF)
washingtonpost.com (NF)
democracynow.org (NF)
npr.org (NF)
pbs.org (NF)
UK Reuters: reuters.com (NF) BBC World Service: bbc.co.uk/news/world (NF) thetimes.co.uk (NF)
telegraph.co.uk (NF)
theguardian.com (NF)
independent.co.uk (2)
en.itar-tass.com (NF)
RIA Novosti: en.ria.ru (NF)
Interfax: interfax.com (NF)
Voice of Russia: voiceofrussia.com (NF) RT (Formely called Russia Today): rt.com (NF) Russian
China Xinhua News Agency (Xinhua): news.cn/english (NF) China Central Television English: english.cctv.cn (NF)
China Radio International English: english.cri.cn (NF)
France Agence France Press (AFP): afp.com/en (NF) France 24 (Television): france24.com/en (3)
Radio France International: english.rfi.fr (NF)
Germany Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA): dpa.com** (NF) Deutsche Welle: dw.de (NF) German
Spain Agencia EFE: efe.com** (NF) Television Espaniola Internacional: rtve.es (NF)
Radio Exterior de Espana: ree.rne.es (NF)
Portugal Agencia de Notocias de Portugal: lusa.pt** (NF) Portugeuse
Qatar Aljazeera: aljazeera.com (NF) Arabic

(1) Report by Associated Press carried by:
Huffington Post (The link may no longer exist, however the article is an edition of the same Associated Press report carried by Fox News shown below.)
Fox News or see pdf copy
(2) Report by Independent or see pdf copy
(3) Report by France 24 Observers carried by France24 English Television or see pdf copy

* Based on legal ownership and official declarations.
** Websites not searchable. Searches can be done on subscribing media outlets.

Search results for coverage of air pollution hospitalizations in Ahvaz, Iran from November 2 to November 30, 2013 in
English Language Primary International Reporters Websites: Category Two

(Numbers in parentheses refer to results quoted below this table. NF: Not found)
State News Agencies State Broadcasters* For Profit Media Public, Nonprofit or Civil Society Media* Majority or Official Language
India Press Trust of India PTI: ptinews.com** (NF) All India Radio: newsonair.nic.in (NF)
Doordarshan (National Television): ddinews.gov.in (NF)
Brazil The Rio Times: riotimesonline.com (NF) Portuguese
Nigeria News Agency of Nigeria
nannewsngr.com (NF)
Mexico The News: thenews.com.mx (1) Spanish
Indonesia antaranews.com/en (NF) Voice of Indonesia: en.voi.co.id (NF) Indonesian
Japan Kyodo News: english.kyodonews.jp** (NF)
Jiji Press: jen.jiji.com** (NF)
NHK World: nhk.or.jp/nhkworld (NF) Japanese
South Africa South African Press
Association (SAPA):
sapa.co.za (NF)
Uruguay Merco Press: en/mercopress.com (NF) Spanish

(1) Report by Associated Press carried by The News, Mexico (The link may no longer exist, however the article is an edition of the same Associated Press report carried by Fox News.)

* Based on legal ownership and official declarations.
** Websites not searchable. Searches can be done on subscribing media outlets.

As these results show, among the many major international reporting agencies and media outlets surveyed only three were found to have made coverage of the events. Most significantly Associated Press issued a report which we can expect was carried by many subscribing outlets around the world. The French international television channel France24 and British newspaper Independent also carried their own reports.

As to what was in these reports is still less encouraging. The Associated Press's dispatch is a few sentences long quoting an Iranian newspaper that in the city of Ahvaz a rainfall had "probably" resulted in an acid rain causing "symptoms" of shortness of breath among the population, sending 5000 to hospitals where 50 had been kept. For background information it says that this city is located in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan which is dotted with oil wells and factories, and that it is one of the most polluted cities of Iran.

The Independent's report sadly seems like a re-work of Associated Press's. It shows a photo of the exhaust tailpipe on back of an old Iranian car with a burst of white smoke flowing out, although at the time of publication of this report the air pollution issue in this region has been known for some years and vehicle exhaust emissions have not been identified as a main source. Elsewhere in this report where the Associated Press's sentence says "An Iranian newspaper says more than 50 people were hospitalized ..." the Independent replaces the word "says" with "has claimed". On the other hand the Independent mentions that the city in question has a population of approximately 1.2 million, and that it is recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the most polluted in the world and not just Iran, a statement which could have a very different meaning. In any case, to a global reader new to the subject the blame would likely go to use of too many of the cars shown in the photo.

France24's report is in comparison more descriptive and context based, a difference that sadly may be traced back to differences in the histories of these media's home countries in the region. This report is done in collaboration with a freelance Iranian journalist and makes mention of the fact that the environmental pollution situation is widespread throughout the region, and that the oil industry is believed to be one of the main culprits. It provides more detail about statistics of illnesses in the country, and it includes a young Ahvazi shopkeeper's personal account of how unhealthy and depressing life has become in the city.

Other than these three reports the events were reflected in some domestic political opposition sites (with translated pages) which usually find very limited reach among general global audiences. Otherwise if you expanded your search for any international reports about the extraordinary situation of pollution in this city and region during recent years, you would only find a one-minute clip by the television service of BBC World from 2011 when Ahvaz was reaching status of the most polluted city in the world. Similar to Independent's, this very brief report skips a mention of the role of the oil industry. We should appreciate the fact however, that according to our search the Western media we have quoted here were the only ones in the world which made any original coverage at all.

Let us now try to make an estimate about how many people may have seen these reports globally. We know that worldwide more than two billion people have access to the internet now. We can therefore assume that many more, well over two billion have access to at least some type of news media. By some estimates, in the US on a typical day about 80% of people with access to news media spend some time on a coverage of public affairs, although the number who do so regularly and do so on international public affairs is expected to be much lower (report by PBS from 2007, or see pdf copy stored on our site). If optimistically we assume the same statistics of 80% daily audience attention for all global populations, and without distinction between local and international coverage, given that these reports were not part of any major newscasts or headlines anywhere, among thousands of items that were carried by thousands of outlets around the world on the particular days that these reports came out, how many people actually saw them? Perhaps in the thousands or tens of thousands. Even if we stretch our already optimistic estimate to hundreds of thousands, in relative terms this stays far below a tenth of a percent of all the people who could potentially have seen them.

But even for those who did see these reports, what did they hear about the root causes, extent and severity of effects on people's health, connections with their own economic, political and social life, or whether there may be any remedies? Stay with us for more with a look at coverage in the native language media (Back to top).

Coverage in Persian Langauge Iranian Media:

Radio Farda is a Persian language branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty funded by US Congress. It is based in Prague, Czech Republic and as an opposition outlet is listened to by millions of Iranians both inside and outside the country. This is a translation of their initial report on November 4th [2].

Radio Farda
Persian Language Radio Based in Prague, Czech Republic
Logo not available

Thousands Fell Short of Breath in Khuzestan Following Rainfall

November 4, 2013 - Following rainfall in some areas of Province of Khuzestan on night of Saturday 11th of Aban [2nd of November] thousands of people showed up at province's hospitals and clinics with shortness of breath and feeling of suffocation.

Mohamad Hasan Sarmast, head of University of Medical Sciences of Ahvaz told ISNA [An Iranian news agency] on Monday that the number of visits to medical centers [immediately after the rainfall] had been 3100. He added that during Sunday and Monday another 1000 had arrived, while the total number of people needing to stay was going down.

However, Naser Sudani member of parliament for Ahvaz said the number of visits was closer to 5000 by Monday afternoon, and that the problem was caused by an "acid rain" which had resulted in a real situation [as opposed to a drill] of a civil defence exercise in the city.

Mohamad Alavi, head of [Public] Health at Ahvaz University of Medical Sciences also described an "acid rain" as a possible cause under investigation.

What does not come through Radio Farda's formally framed report is feelings of anger, loss and anxiety of people of a city and region, when they wake up to a situation like this without themselves having done anything to cause it. Tehran Emrooz is a daily newspaper which in an article the next day acknowledges the pain of the people. It starts with a heading: "Air Pollution Nightmare of Ahvaz Has Come to Reality". After stating the facts of the incident (which we have omitted in the translation) it gives a more detailed quotation from the head of the city's medical university. It then quotes from two university researchers who have done studies on the particular air pollution issue in question, and shows that even ten years on after the problem has been known and worsening, high officials in the executive and legislative branches of government can't be reached for a serious comment about it [3].

Tehran Emrooz
Persian Language Morning Daily, Tehran, Iran
Logo not available

Level of environmental pollution harm in Ahvaz is unprecedented:

[November 5, 2013] Following countless hospital calls in the past few days in Ahvaz, speculation is pointing to probability of an acid rain as the root cause. In this regard [Mohamad Hosein Sarmast,] head of Ahvaz's University of Medical Sciences visited and spoke with some of the patients hospitalised in the city's Shafa, Emam and Golestan medical care centers. Having looked at the patients' [profiles and] progress he stated: "Environmental protection authorities have been fully informed about distribution of occurrences of these medical conditions throughout the province. They have [accordingly] paid special consideration to towns where the problem has been more acute, and shared their information with the Organization of Meteorology for final assessments. He added: "In a meeting that will be convened with the province's Office of Meteorology the main causes of this phenomenon will be determined and final assessments made."

With regards to [assumptions about] the main causes he specified: "The main theory to explain the occurrence of breathing problems following precipitation points to nothing other than environmental pollutants. These pollutants had accumulated in the air, and with rain water and especially lightening reacted into other chemicals exposing citizens of [the province of] Khuzestan to illness." He continued: "Similar occurrences have been observed in Khuzestan in the past few years during the first two months of [autumn season] precipitation, however there is no comparison with the extent of the problem this year."

Methods to deal with environmental pollutants:

Mojtaba Darikvand a researcher on urban pollutants says: "Refineries need to be here because functioning of the country's industries depends on them, but along with these factories and pollution they produce environmental considerations must be taken. If exhaust emissions from these refineries are not checked and strong enough filters not used to prevent greenhouse gases from reaching the cities, people of Khuzestan will continue to be gripped with asthma and breath shortness and acid rain."

This researcher emphasises: "Gases these refineries emit exceed international standards by several orders of magnitude, and although possibility of preventing them from entering Khuzestan's air does exist, unfortunately up to now the matter has never been taken up as a priority by either the Organisation for Protection of Environments or Ministry of Petroleum or any other responsible authorities. Acid rain is a result of reaction of rain water with residues of crude oil pollutants in the air, and it leads to skin and lung diseases in people and contamination of soil and surface waters, in addition to corrosion of building exteriors."

Dust in the air and depression of Ahvazis

Pollution brings diseases. Sometimes a baby is born with two heads, sometimes breath goes short, sometimes you lose your eyesight. Abbas Shahsavani, a researcher with Tehran University Department of Medicine together with some of his colleagues have written a paper on effects of airborne dust on health. Shahsavani has also done [some] experiments on fetuses and Iraqi children. He tells Tehran Emrooz: "It has been proven that asthma, eye diseases and feelings of depression in Ahvaz are caused by airborne pollution. Dust storms have additional adverse effects on climate, health and economy. Airborne pollutants lead to increased occurrences of meningitis, valley fever, asthma, viral diseases and damage to skin and lung DNA."

For the air pollution issue in Ahvaz task forces have been appointed, but it remains as bad as ever there. Poet of the south [Iran] Gheysar Aminpour says "Vanishable is dust [of grief] off my heart", but these dust are not so, and they have stuck on the souls of people of Ahvaz.

Wandering of people of Ahvaz among authorities

Ahvaz isn't feeling good. The dust that had so filled its soul has now spilt over on the outside in shape of acid rain. The autumn rain that had hitherto brought soothing and cleansing of mind now sends people to hospitals. In reply to a question from Tasnim [news agency] Masoumeh Ebtekar, head of Organisation for Protection of Environments [equivalent to a Ministry of Environment in Iran] says: "This is a matter for Ministry of Health. Minister of Health is the one who needs to state the causes." When pressed whether the causes may be attributable to airborne pollutants, she says: "They might be, but it is for the Minister of Health to tell."

Elsewhere in response to a question from Tehran Emrooz, Kamal ed-din Pir Moazen, member of parliament and member of Parliamentary Committee for Industries and Mines says: "I am mourning for Aba abd-ellah Hosein right now, and hangs up the telephone." [Aba abd-ellah Hosein is a full title for the shiites' third Emam who they consider to have been the legitimate heir to the Islamic caliphate in seventh century AD, who instead along with seventy one of his family members and followers was assassinated by the ruling caliph of the time.]

Air pollution has plagued the people of Ahvaz since 1383 (2004)1 and we are in 1392 (2013) now, yet none of the authorities are prepared to tell us what they have done about it since, or what they plan to do now, when even the World Health Organisation is calling this city the most polluted in the world.

The sharp and even scornful criticism that this newspaper mounts on the government comes given what the real dimensions of the problems may be, but of course it still stays within acceptable bounds as it does not say anything about the regime as a whole; yet it must be some consolation to the readers to see that even legally operating media can raise alarms to this extent and show irritation.

The next day the government goes on defensive. The province's head of Office of Protection of Environments (equivalent to provincial branch of a Ministry of Environments) gives an interview to the newspaper that first reported the incident and was later quoted by international media. In this interview the provincial head of the environments office gives his account of how so much of the problems have been caused by Saddam Hussein's Iraq and later the US. He mentions domestic origins of the pollution problems as the other half of the issues only once. The newspaper which has so far mainly only provided a platform for the official's narrative highlights this admission with an explicit mention of "mismanagement" of domestic heavy industries and marshes [4].

Persian Language Daily, Tehran, Iran
Logo not available

Effects of past wars on air pollution in the region:

Arman [November 6, 2013]: Destructive effects of wars on living environments are long-lasting, depriving people of possibility of life within a healthy environment for a long time. Present threats to [the health of] residents of [province of] Khuzestan find their roots in the past: in the eight-year war with Iraq, and in Iraq's other wars against Kuwait and the US. Wars pose threats to environments in addition to people, and ultimately to all living beings.

Chemical contaminants and radioactive pollution from Iraq and the US:

"Use of chemical weapons by Iraq did not just harm Iranian fighters. Parts of Khuzestan's rivers, soil and marshes that protect against spread of pollutants were contaminated too." This is what Mr. Lahijanzadeh, head of the province's Office for Protection of Environments says. Chemical contaminants have persisting effects on the environments, effects which may take years to diminish. And this [use of chemical weapons] is not the only cause of pollution in Khuzestan. In March of this year The Guardian noted that so far 300 bases contaminated with radioactive substances have been identified in Iraq. On this matter Lahijanzadeh says: "In both its wars against Iraq [1991 and 2003] the US used bombs with radioactive materials. Radioactive contamination spreads around and has caused pollution in Khuzestan."

War of petroleum carriers and black rain:

During the Iran-Iraq war [1980-88] both sides attacked each other's [petroleum] carriers in the Persian Gulf, a conflict that went on for most of the eight-year period, and in which the US participated also for protection of its purchases of Iraqi oil. Although neither party managed to deliver a decisive blow on the other, in all 543 ships were attacked. These attacks caused contamination of the Gulf waters. Lahijanzadeh also reminds us of the fate of oil rigs on the Gulf: "The war of carriers and resulting explosions on ships as well as on oil rigs caused spread of crude and [other] contaminants in the Gulf waters. A great number of mamals perished and pollution reached Khuzestan too." Black rain has been another consequence of wars [in the region]. Iran had no part in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent reaction by the US, yet costs of bombings of [Kuwaiti] oil wells were imposed on the people of Khuzestan. Lahijanzadeh says: "[Kuwaiti] oil wells were set afire and with subsequent rainfalls, [gas] emissions [reacted with rain water and] precipitated on towns and cities of Khuzestan, a phenomenon called black rain."

Protected areas of Karkheh and Dez:

Two protected areas of Karkheh and Dez [in the provinve of Khuzestan] suffered greatly during the period of the Imposed War [Imposed War is a title used by the Iranian government for the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988], as wars do not distinguish between protected and unprotected areas: "During the war parts of these areas became battle grounds and were hit by bullets and rockets. Continued bombing brought contamination to the soil." Firing of weapons damages the soil, and damaged soil means no plants can grow on it. The war has thus had an effect of desertification on some areas of Khuzestan. In addition, alterations in the terrains have not been benign to the state of the environments. Head of Khuzestan's environments office says: "[Natural] systems of land surfaces were altered. Building of trenches and bunkers and other structures caused damage to the environments."

Invasion of airborne particulate matter:

A significant part of airborne particulate matter that has made Ahvaz the most polluted city in the world is because of drying of marshes in Iraq. Lahijanzadeh notes that these marshes were deliberately dried by Saddam [Hussein, Iraq's then dictator] by building a canal: "Iraq's previous regime dried out the marshes there, and that essentially created the problem of airborne particulate matter in Ahvaz. Subsequent to America's first war with Iraq, shiite forces entered the scene and proceeded to use the marshes as terrain for guerrilla warfare. [In response] Saddam built a canal 2 kilometers wide and 50 kilometers long in order to drain out parts of Hoor-al-Azim and the majority of Beyn-an-Nahreyn marshes [into the canal]. In 2000 the UN declared two environmental catastrophes: this, and loss of parts of the Amazon rainforests. The problem of particulate matter [in Khuzestan] started then, but it was not so acute yet because of remaining moisture in the soil. From about 2002 onwards, the affected areas started to dry completely and the problem intensified." These [moving] particulate matter are the main foreign sources of air pollution in Khuzestan and in western regions of the country. Iraq has initiated work to address the issue but it is facing obstacles of its own: "They have a water problem. Turkey has built a number of dams on Tigris and Euphrates, and as a result Iraq does not receive a lot of water, hence its difficulty in solving the problem of [its drying] marshes."

Air pollution entails lasting consequences:

Khuzestan is still suffering from pollution caused by Iraq's wars with Iran, Kuwait and the US, and of course added to this is already existing pollution caused by oil and gas industries, vehicle exhaust emissions and drying of domestic marshes like Shadegan. Lahijanzadeh says destructive environmental consequences of wars are long lasting: "Chemicals do not disappear quickly. Alteration and bombing of land surfaces have damaged the soil and have resulted in desertification. The problem of airborne particulate matter being the main cause of pollution in Khuzestan has thus remained unsolved."

Air pollution from airborne particulate matter and industries:

Head of Khuzestan's environments protection office considers two main categories of air pollutants [in the province]: Airborne particulates which originate from both domestic and foreign sources, and other [gas emissions] pollutants from oil and gas and other industrial activity in and around Ahvaz. The pollution problem is thus partly due to destructive effects of [past] wars, and partly due to mismanagement of domestic marshes and heavy industries in the Ahvaz region. However, Lahijanzadeh says for this level of air pollution, due to particular climatic circumstances in Ahvaz exposure of residents is [relatively] low: "Temperature is very high in Ahvaz and phenomenon of "inversion" doesn't occur here [Inversion in meteorology refers to a condition where temperature increases (instead of decreases) with altitude, causing pollutants to stay and concentrate in low altitudes closer to people on the ground]. High temperatures create more air movement, in addition to the fact that winds are present often here. Hence air pollution does not accumulate, and loses concentration with occurrence of high temperatures and winds."

The recent poisoning was caused by stillness of air:

Lahijanzadeh considers stillness of Ahvaz's air to be a cause of recent poisoning in the city. On the the matter of this poisoning which sent about 5500 residents of Ahvaz to hospitals he says: "The spread of shortness of breath was preceded by a two to three-day period of stillness of air, resulting in accumulation of air pollutants which adversely affected breathing of the citizens." Yesterday [Mohamad Hasan] Sarmast head of Ahvaz's University of Medical Sciences also noted stillness of air in addition to an acid rain as [combined] causes of the poisoning. He told Fars [News Agency]: "The reason behind this rare phenomenon was appearance of a first autumn rainfall coinciding with a period of stillness of air and a high level of humidity combined with presence of air pollutants. Although the level of air pollution itself had not been higher than usual, stillness of air had exacerbated the problem in creating this unusual situation. Based on reports the [immediate] cause of the incident which has sent over 5500 people to the province's hospitals was occurrence of an acid rain." Ministry of Health has sent an [investigation] board to the province which is due to present a report next week.

Ban Ki-moon: Make environmental costs of war public:

[The day this article is published happens to coincide with the United Nation International Day for Prevention of Exploitation of Environments in War and Armed Conflict. This newspaper makes a connection with the subject matter of its report and quotes from secretary general Ban Ki-moon.] On the occasion of International Day for Prevention of Exploitation of Environments in War and Armed Conflict, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanded that governments include damages to the environments in their declarations of losses suffered from wars and conflicts: "... in calculations of losses suffered from wars and conflict, statistics of numbers of injured and dead and damages to cities and buildings are published, but nothing is said about destruction of the environments and natural resources, these being the long term victims leading to more losses and casualties for years following cease of hostilities."

Having reflected the government's side of the story, this newspaper thus makes a point that those who pressure its country for adhering to principles of respect for human rights and proper behaviour in a global civil society, according to an independent world body do not do so themselves; implying what the criticizers are really upset about is the country's stance for independence and rejection of foreign domination as expressed by the revolution thirty four years ago, circumstances which continue to impose costs on the people and create difficult challenges for the government.

That the present government is an outcome of people's uprising thirty four years ago, to ordinary Iranians is still what gives it any remaining sense of entitlement and forgiveness for its shortcomings; and these are the popular sentiments that government officials resort to when they know they have no other explanations to offer. In the face of the environmental pollution problem at issue here, the official from the executive branch has talked at length about what has been outside of his control, but said little about the domestic side of the problem when in fact he knows that the latter is the more significant one.

Only a month prior to this incident he was hosting a first "National Convention on Air Pollution: Monitoring, Effects and Prevention" in his city. In that gathering of government and academic experts he said: "The situation of air pollution in the province of Khuzestan and city of Ahvaz bears distinct characteristics in comparison to those in other metropolitan areas of the country.heads of provincial and national environment offices Take [for instance] yearly occurrences of days under hazardous or dangerous conditions. In 1391 (2012) for example, we had 254 days under hazardous conditions of which 61 days reached the dangerous zone. Also in the particular case of Ahvaz, because of presence of particulates throughout the region air pollution does not clear as one moves outside the city, as is the case in other major centers like Tehran, Esfahan, Tabriz, Karaj and Shiraz."

After this introduction he went on to list what makes the situation in his province so different. He started with the oil and gas industry: "Daily, millions of cubic feet of natural gas are burnt alongside [extracted] crude releasing hundreds of tons of pollution into the air, something that is particular to our province." He then mentioned drying of marshland in the region as the next factor, and lamented that his province should not have to suffer for being home to the country's most important revenue-generating industry (report dated October 9, 2013, website of Iranian Organisation for Protection of Environments www.doe.ir [5]).

Three weeks after the rainfall incident, final report of an investigation committee headed by the senior member of parliament for Ahvaz confirms the environments official's original assessment, and narrows down the main causes to domestic heavy industries including oil and gas. The report also presents a previuosly unnoticed fact that the pollution is reaching the province's waters too [6].

Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency
Parliament of Islamic Republic of Iran
Logo not available

Presentation of Committee for Investigation of Air Pollution in Khuzestan: Air Pollution Has Reached the Waters Too:

[November 21, 2013] On results of enquiries of the [joint] team of members of parliament and government [dispatched to the province earlier, Naser Sudani] representative of people of Ahvaz stated that according to the reports air pollutants combined with rain water have reached the [province's] waters too. The [final] report will be read on the floor [of the assembly] on fifth of Azar [26th of November].

Naser Sudani added given the opportunity of this team's presence in the province, visits were made to centers like steel industries and others [considered to be] at the origin of the pollution. The representative of people of Ahvaz continued: "Also visits were made to villages in vicinities of [natural] gas deposits, extraction operations, [other] especailly identified areas around the city of Ahvaz, and stations for air and water pollution measurement belonging to the Environments Protection Organisation.

He noted prior to their return [to the capital] the team had an elaborate meeting with provincial authorities of the Environments Protection Office, Crisis Committee, Unforeseen Incidents, the Governor's office and others. About conclusions reached, he confirmed that all industrial activity including oil and gas and national projects were determined to be significant contributors to the problem.

He reiterated that the parliament's Committee for Health and Health Care is [also] due to have a session with the provincial environments protection authorities in order to complete the reports and draw a final version to be presented to the public session of the Assembly on Tuesday fifth of Azar [26th of November].

On the matter of latest status of air pollution patients in the hospitals this member of the Energy Committee of the Islamic Consultative Assembly [referring to the same interviewee, member of parliament for Ahvaz] emphasised that from 11th of Aban [2nd of November] onwards about twenty thousand people had reported to medical care centers [in the province], of whom about a hundred had been hospitalised and eleven taken to Intensive Care Units. Of the last group [of intensive care unit patients] all but two had been released by yesterday.

As these reports show at this point the severe and worsening pollution problem in this region has been known and acknowledged for ten years, and it is known to originate from two different sources: one foreign which the government has had no direct control over, and the other domestic from completely man-made and preventable industrial operations.Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran The question naturally arises, what has the government done during this ten-year period? and what is it going to do now after this latest alarming emergency?

The short answer to the first question is by any reasonable standards very little. More specifically we can get a picture of the overall situation in the region and what the government has or has not done from the article translated bellow.Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran The answer to the second question (what are the actions planned now) can also be drawn from this same article published about three months following the incident by a news agency called Mehr.

Following the acid rain emergency, in response to public anxiety about possibilities of recurrence authorities stated that they needed to determine the exact causes, and that these were very difficult to pinpoint. About three months later still no official announcements had been offered. Like the newspaper Tehran Emrooz quoted earlier, this news agency takes a bluntly critical tone and starts by pointing out that still there are not even clearly defined strategies for dealing with the problems, let alone acting on them. It then goes on to describe evidence that already exists about damages to people's health, and how the situation can only get worse, and how the government has not measured up to its responsibilities [7].

Mehr News Agency
Tehran, Iran
Logo not available

Increase of cancer in Khuzestan: The culprit is air pollution.

[January 21, 2014] The air pollution crisis in Khuzestan has resulted in a sharp increase in cases of cancer there, while the question of strategies to deal with the issues still remains one surrounded in ambiguities.

According to our Mehr [News Agency] reporter, until recently none of the authorities would have it that cancer rates have gone up drastically in the province. Shafa Hospital is the only specialised center for cancer treatment in Ahvaz. Nearly all children and 90% of all Khuzestan adults come here for cancer treatment. [The situation in] Shafa is thus in itself a picture of cancer in the province, yet none of the authorities have ever even set foot here, nor have any of the shocking statistics [here] ever been presented to any air pollution task forces.

Now though, a previous director of this hospital is [finally] warning about significant increases in cancer cases in recent years [in the province] and a relationship with air pollution. Kaveh Jasb who holds a postdoctoral specialisation in blood deseases and children's cancer says: "Statistics show that the numbers of new patients registrations at Shafa went up from 223 in the year 1375 [1996] to 998 in 1391 [2012], or by 500%, while the population of Khuzestan has not increased by more than 25% during this period. On the other hand, between the years of 1380 [2001] when air pollution measurement equipment were first installed [in Ahvaz] and 1391 [2012], we can see that the numbers of days with air pollution warnings went up by about 800%. If we take air pollution as a measure of environmental pollution in general (including also air, food etc) a direct relationship with increases in cancer follows by simple logic."

He continues: "If we take into account the fact that it takes some years for these effects to build up on people's health, we must conclude that these increases [in cancer cases] go back to years prior to 1386 [2007] when pollution levels were even much lower. If we just sit and wait for the present levels of pollution to do their damage, we can expect a tsunami of cancers to arrive in the region."

Finally noting that cancer is in general caused by either genetic or environmental factors, Jasb says: "During the years under consideration here, genetic factors (i.e. ethnic makeup and in-family marriages) have not changed in the province. It is therefore reasonable to attribute the increases [in cancer] to environmental factors. [In particular,] reports indicate presence of [radioactive] Uranium in the mix of particulate matter [pollution] in the province's air, and this is very important."

This postdoctoral fellow who is planning to publish findings of his research in a scientific paper emphasises: "The matter of increases in cancer in Khuzestan is so grave and alarming that even if all the aforementioned remains [in the domain of] assumptions, much more serious attention needs to be paid to it."

Silent killer:

Although environmental authorities in the eleventh cabinet [referring to the newly formed government of president Hassan Rouhani] have finally confirmed a relationship between increases in deaths and air pollution, the previous head of environments protection office had said: "There is no [confirmed] report that even one person has died because of air pollution." This statement was totally refuted by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) three months ago. In its new report this agency officially puts airbore particulate matter and air pollution on top of its list of cancer causing agents.

Previously IARC had named only some types of particulates such as exhaust from diesel engines as cancer causing, while in this new report it includes [essentially] all types of airborne pollution. According to this report although risk of lung cancer from [ordinary levels of] air pollution is low, over-abundance of pollutants that are difficult to avoid such as those from urban transport systems, power plants and other industrial and agricultural activity does lead to increases in cancer.

Concurrent with this report for the second time the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared Ahvaz the world's most polluted city, and one of ten most heavily affected by industrial activity. In its announcement the Organisation says: "We now know that air pollution poses not only a general health hazard, but it is also a main cause of cancer-related deaths."

Previously, in an article two faculty members of University of Martyr Chamran in Ahvaz had also warned about presence of airborne Uranium and its effects [in this region].

Forgotten Priority:

[After presenting these facts the report describes some of the usual denials and evasive statements from government officials and friendly academics.] However, the Ministry of Health neither recognizes findings of others, nor is prepared to complete its own decade-old pending studies. [Reza] Malekzadeh, a deputy minister of health recently said: "We do not have such a thing as a tsunami of cancer in this country. Our numbers of occurrences of cancer are lower than those in European countries."

Mostafa Feghhi, a past vice director of research at Ahvaz University of Medical Sciences says: "Although adverse effects of airbone pollution on health are undeniable, a proper scientific assessment requires comprehensive studies which can take years. This also applies to the question of relationships between air pollution and cancer. Investigations on airborne particulate pollution have been placed in the province's priorities, but due to financial limitations have not been completed yet. Of these studies some that had been identified as higher priority have been carried out, while some others are still pending."

Feghhi who held that position [referring to his academic research position at the medical sciences university] from 1388 (2009) until a few days ago continues: "The studies got started in 1389 (2010) with an assumption of ten billion Rials of available credit. Up to now five billion have been drawn from the University's research budget. The rest is to come from government bodies like the Ministry of Interior, the Province or the Environments Protection Organisation, none of which have yet come forth with any assistance. With co-operation from these organisations we could have set up [field] research stations, expanded our teams, and extended the [geographic] area of our research beyond Ahvaz to the entire province; while because of shortage of resources, in fact even in the laboratories we have not been able to start looking at the issue [for example] of radioactivity in particulate matter pollution. The same is true about some other [pollution-related] health issues such as psychological impact and education and treatment [needs]."

[Elsewhere] Naser Soudani Member of Parliament for Ahvaz, confirming a significant increase in blood diseases in [the province of] Khuzestan said: "Four years ago representatives of the province requested a report from the Minister of Health about increases in respiratory and blood diseases [there]. In reply the then-Minister stated that in recent years those diseases had shown significant increases in the province, but could not offer any further strategies as to how to deal with the issues."

Sixty hazardous days, ten clean days:

[To close, the report uses government's own statistics and scientific opinion by another expert to point to actual gravity of the problem.] The issue of particulate matter pollution in Khuzestan was observed for the first time in 1380 (2001) in towns of Abadan, Khorramshahr and Shadegan. In four years, it had spread to the entire province, and by now grips twenty provinces [in western Iran].

Reports by the Environments Protection Organisation show that dust particle pollution in this province has distinct characteristics: the particle sizes are often less than 2.5 microns. [Spikes in air] pollution can take it to fifty times the standard [acceptable limits], and these [pollution levels] can last from three to ten days at a time. There was a case [of high pollution] lasting for eighty days in 1388 (2009). On average [these spikes] occur once in fifteen days. Also their negative effects are compounded with wind directions that occur from north-west to south-east in the province.

These reports also show that [the city of] Ahvaz has had "unhealthy or very unhealthy or hazardous conditions" for 206 days in 1390 [2011] and 254 days in [1391] 2012. In each of these years there have been 60 days of hazardous and only 10 days of healthy conditions. There has not been one single healthy day during the entire first half of this year [of 2013].

Mehran Afkhami, a faculty member and researcher in environmental sciences says: "Air pollution from particulate matter with less than 10 microns size is of critical importance. The small size of these particles makes it possible for them to pass through all natural barriers along the respiratory paths and lungs and enter the bloodstream. Consequently any other substances like allergens, heavy metals and others that may have been attached to these particles can enter the bloodstream."

[He adds:] "The bulk of pollution in Ahvaz stems from both the desert-like climatic conditions here, and presence of heavy industries right in and around the city (like the steel industry). Unfortunately most of the pollution fits the above descriptions [in terms of particulate sizes and sources] making for a situation here that if not unique is very rare [anywhere the world]. In recent years, low quality fuels used in old vehicles and [further] spread of particulates have added to the mix making the city the most highly polluted in the world."

Ten years of wait:

[On the matter of what the government has done so far, the report describes a "Comprehensive Plan" that has been ten years in the making but has actually accomplished much less than promised.] A "Comprehensive Plan for Reduction of Air Pollution in Ahvaz" was legislated by "Ahvaz Air Pollution Task Force" in month Bahman of 1390 [February of 2012]. This Plan recognized Ahvaz as one of the most polluted cities in the country and identified the responsible factors as: vehicle exhaust emissions 24%, public transport systems 3%, and industries (mainly petroleum) 74%. It also cited burning of waste from sugar cane farms outside the city.

Earlier in the winter of 1383 [2005] initial studies by this Task Force had identified petroleum industries, power plants especially the Ramin plant, and steel factories as the main pollutants here. According to these studies [at that time] 156 projects were defined that could bring about a 52.5% reduction in the pollution in ten years. The expectation was that at least 70% of these projects would have been completed by now, but a decade later assessments show that because of sectarian mentality among governmental organisations involved, many of the major ones have not even been started yet.

60% Disappointment

On this matter Ahmad Reza Lahijanzadeh, Kuzestan's head of environments protection office says: "The average rate of completion for the "Comprehensive Plan for Reduction of Air Pollution" in seven of the country's metropolitan centers has been found to be about 40%; for Ahvaz it is 45%." He adds: "Some components of these projects have been out of provincial hands; these include standardization of transportation fuels, standardization of vehicles [emission control systems], dismantling of old vehicles and construction of urban rapid transport systems." [With regards to the provincial components he says:] "Some of the provincial components have not yet been completed either; these include collection of gases that otherwise burn with extracted crude, and controls on emissions from the province's steel industries. Also due to shortcomings in gas distribution systems, industrial use of mazut has actually decreased. Another project [required by the Plan] was creation of 7000 hectares of green belt around Ahvaz, and this was abandoned during the Third [National] Development Program. Recently this project has been reinstated and so far 500 hectares have been created."

Lahijanzadeh points to a need for revision of the Plan for Ahvaz: "At the time [of legislation of this Plan] there was no issue of spreading particulates; also increases in the number vehicles and [generally] passage of ten years [since the plan's conception] all make its re-assessment a necessity, and this is currently being done."

Lahijanzadeh highlights the impact of [local] industries on air pollution: "Although airborne particulates do add very seriously to the air pollution, their impact is not so persistent, while industries like petroleum and steel leave long lasting consequences."

[Nonetheless] he believes that the current [pollution] problems are solvable: "The problem is that legislation isn't enacted, and [instead] we only keep stating the issues. Take for example re-filling of the Iraqi side of Hour al Azim border marshes this year, which had tangible effects on the amount of spreading particulates. On our side, not only we didn't do anything for these marshland, we even dried them further. [I think] the government should act now towards reversing the desertification of the region, just as they have done on so many other matters like [a list of unrelated government projects from other ministries]. But unfortunately up to now there has not been a serious will here."

Waiting for the Tsunami:

Two months have past since the latest air pollution crisis and "acid rain" emergency which brought breath shortness to twenty thousand citizens of Khuzestan, and the precise causes are still not clear. Yet this is by no means the whole issue. Air pollution in this province and its effects on people's health have been known for a decade now, but the authorities only remember it on "Clean Air Days" when they come [to us] and report that they have done so and so.

Now that strategies for dealing with these issues have been put on hold, and studies of impacts on people's health halted, for how many more years should we not expect a "tsunami of cancer" in this region?

Report by Nadereh Vaelizadeh

Besides the unfollowed and uncompleted steps that this reports describes, to deal with spread of particulate pollution into western Iran in June of 2013 the government had installed an "ionic shield".Air pollution in Ahvaz, Iran This Russian technology was supposed to attract and sink the airborne dust particles by creating an electromagnetic field at higher altitudes. Five months later it had not produced any significant results and by government's own admission proved a disappointment (report by IRNA, www.irna.ir, November 23, 2013 [8]).

Another measure more importanly needed for reduction of pollution in this region is collection of gases mixed with crude that burn on the numerous extraction wells throughout this province. According to the website of National Iranian South Oilfields Company (the central government-owned entity which operates the industry here, www.nisoc.ir [9]) this imperative has been recognized since the 1960s, and as is usually claimed taken more seriously by the new revolutionary government.Burning of natural gas on oil wells, Khuzestan, Iran They present a table that shows percentages of burned gas out of total gas extraction for the years of 1986 to 2001. There is a progressive drop from 57% in 1986 to 26% in 2001, but no information for the years following. The written text says that these improvements have been reached in some of the oil fields, but still in progress in others including those in the Ahvaz region. It says the goal is to bring the percentages down to 3% but gives no other specific information with regards to any plans, despite the fact that, as we heard from the provincial head of environments office earlier, burning of these giant flames of gas is the single most important factor responsible for the air pollution in this region.

In summary, from these reports and statements we can read that in the face of this actual harm and jeopardy to the health of millions of citizens, for ten years the government has done more talking and procrastinating than anything else.Industrial waste gas emissions near cities, Khuzestan, Iran From the Mehr News Agency report above we can see that even to confirm the existing common sense evidence about the adverse health effects, the government defers any final assessments to results of their own studies which are held up for a sum similar to $500,000. Similarly the "Comprehensive Plan" that this report describes had somehow projected a precise figure of 52.5% of reduction in air pollution in Ahvaz in ten years and, according to the provincial environments official, to date has been 45% successful, but there are still 254 days per year of recorded unhealthy conditions in the city.

Interestingly the news agency reporting here is operated by a hardliner foundation under auspices of the Supreme Leader (called Islamic Development Organization, www.ido.ir) charged with dissemination of information and education of Islamic values of the Revolution,Air pollution and people, Khuzestan, Iran while the newspaper Tehran Emrooz that was quoted earlier in this article was owned by a political opponent of the previous conservative president (Ahmadinejad), and by present domestic standards a dissident outlet (It was closed in 2014 due to "shortage of paper"). You may see it as an optimistic point that these criticism are reported by the range of domestic media, however if you think openings like these may be prelude to reversals and action as they might be in more democratic contexts, not necessarily so.

First, unlike facts that are not verifiable by outside observers such as what may happen to political detainees in prisons, here the government cannot deny existence of these conditions. They need instead to show that they are aware of, and dealing with the issues. Second, there is the "relief valve" effect that has become a joke among Iranians: some "show" that the regime itself is suspected of putting on to create an impression that this is painful to them too, and that they are trying to do better.Air pollution and people, Khuzestan, Iran Third, in fact these reports are seen by very few among the ordinary people whose lives are at stake here, people who in any case are at the moment powerless. It is more certain however, that coverage like these are often parts of sectarian in-fighting intentionally brought out to public visibility in order to score hits on the opponents.

Theatrical nature of the government's use of media is also evident from interviews of the head of the environments office in the province, of which some have been quoted here. Depending on where and who he is talking to, he takes completely different angles and goes through different sets of information. Why for example in his interview immediately after the acid rain emergency didn't he mention the domestic sources of the pollution as the main cause? He now acknowledges the oil industry as the main source but complains about inaction and lack of co-ordination within the government as obstacles that have hampered the efforts (the Comprehensive Plan) for ten years. If we are to take recognition and acknowledgement of these shortcomings as signs that they are about to be overcome, probably not, because now the Plan itself needs to be revised; and not to worry, as that is being done too; only there are no other details or a time frame that he can add.

More optimistically, we can interpret these reports as signs that the government does intend to do more. Election of a new president who declares himself a moderate and intent on correcting negligent ways and corruption of the past two terms, as well as possibilities for better relations with the West and easing of economic sanctions give them better ability to act; although generally the extent to which this regime is willing or capable of tackling enormous social and economic problems facing Iran today is at best a subject of debate. With regards to our subject matter here, air pollution in this province, we do have the ability to look at reality on the ground and where it goes. We will allow several more months for possible results and do so in the summer of 2014.

Before going there though, if you were asking whether the "precise causes" of the acid rain incidents were ever found, according to the report below they were, and "incidentally" only a week following publication of the above highly critical report in the media, which asked that question again in its closing [10].

News Site, Tehran, Iran
Logo not available

[February 2, 2014] The Organisation for Protection of Evironments' Deputy Director for Human Living Environments announced their final assessment of causes of air pollution that led to poisoning of people of Ahvaz following rainfall [last November].

ISNA (News Agency) reports that Dr. Said Motesaddi announced: "For the conditions that arose in the city [of Ahvaz] following the rainfall [on November second] two main factors were named as the original agents: sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide."

He continued: "This respiratory syndrome is usually induced by these two pollutants, and for this reason we will try to eliminate sources of sulphur dioxide that have been emitting into the city's air and jeopardising people's health."

This deputy director of the Organisation for Protection of Environments continued: "For elimination of these pollutants we have made certain plans in co-operation with the Ministry of Petroleum, and fortunately have already achieved some success in controlling some of the sources."

Motesaddi reiterated: "Strictly speaking, the precise origins of these pollutants have not been pinpointed, and in fact generally such a determination may not be possible, however [we can see that] following the two past incidents [referring to two occurrences of acid rain up this point] we have not had another one."

A closer examination shows that this report does not in fact contain any significant new information and furthermore, it too is highly coded and constructed. The official making the announcement is higher than the provincial one we have been hearing from, a deputy director in the central administration in the capital responsible for "human living environments" i.e. environments where people live, and he makes some sympathetic references to people's health, something that his department head had earlier refused to talk about referring the matter to the Ministry of Health.

As for the precise causes of the acid rain effect being the main purpose of his announcement, the official cites two gases that have been emitting in the region's air. He says his department has talked to the Ministry of Petroleum for controlling sources of these emissions, and "achieved some success" too; but he closes by saying that they have moved on their best estimates and that the exact sources may never be known, from which statement we can conclude that there can be no guarantees about the final results.

The two gases that this official cites are scientifically known to be side effects of burning oil and gas, and always the first suspects as regards acid rain incidents. You can easily read about this point in lay language by entering keywords like "petroleum environment sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide" in a search engine. These gases can result from other processes too, like vehicle exhaust and other industrial activity, but given predominance of petroleum production activity in this region, simple logic makes these industries the most obvious suspects.

Given the urgency of the situation, why then did the environments department need three months to notice this fact of science and the logical conclusions that flow from it to move and initiate co-operative plans with the Ministry of Petroleum? Was any of these plans already included in the "Comprehensive Plan" that was in the works for ten years and legislated three years ago? In any case what does "some success" exactly mean?

Let us move forward in time to the next summer in 2014 to see what "some success" really meant. With respect to the foreign-originated haze pollution, though not under government's direct control, we find a report by the same Mehr News Agency on July 14th 2014 titled "Air pollution in Khuzestan has reached 25 times the allowable limits". In the body of the report we can read:

"... According to international standards the maximum allowable limit for particulate matter [air] pollution is 150 micrograms per cubic meter, while the actual density in the town of Dezfool reached 3,656 or 25 times the allowable limit today ...Streets of the province's towns and cities are nearly empty today and silence dominates everywhere. The skies look yellow and people have difficulty breathing ...Spokesperson for the environmental protection office said measured concentrations of particulate haze [in some of the province's towns] are: Dezfool: 3656, Masjed-e Soleyman: 2100, Mahshahr: 1695, Shadegan: 1241 and Ahvaz: 1200 micrograms per cubic meter." (report by Mehr News Agency www.mehrnews.com, July 14, 2014 [11])

A search for any news of progress on the government's plans for controls on the domestic side of the pollution turned no results. On the contrary, on August 29th we find the provincial head of the environments office, while consoling the people about the spreading haze problem as he usually finds a way to do, telling his interviewer that the situation in the Ahvaz region needs "immediate attention"; and to make his point he invokes the image of burning torches on the oil wells:

"... Fortunately in the water years of 2012-13 and 2013-14 we had good precipitation including a 70% increase in Iraq. This resulted in refilling of marshes in Khuzestan and subsequently a significant decrease in particulate matter pollution.

With drop in spread of particulates we have had something like ten days or less of haze conditions in the past five months, while in comparison we had more than forty days during the same period last year. The concentration [of haze conditions] has dropped too; it could have been more than ten thousand micrograms per cubic meter before, while now it is rarely more than a thousand.

Ahvaz needs immediate attention:

[Quote continued] If you take an air flight over Khuzestan, you will be looking at flames of burning crude because of the extensive petroleum production activity here. Coupled with spreading haze, these conditions can take the pollution beyond limits of the province." (report by Mizan News Agency www.mizanpress.ir, August 29, 2014 [12]) (Back to top)


My mother's family are entirely from Ahvaz. She always likes to tell us that on her mother's side she had nine uncles and four aunts, and on her father's side six uncles and one aunt. Four generations later we must have more cousins and grandcousins than I would venture to count. When I heard the news of acid rain in Ahvaz last November, in my weekly phone conversation with my mother I asked her how our family were doing there. "Very few are still there, the majority have left" she said. I wasn't surprised. Move in our family started with my grandfather who got an assignment in Tehran in the 50s. Younger siblings would sometimes follow during the next decades, but the war with Iraq created a new and less avoidable necessity. After war's end home never became home again for most of those who had left.

Our family were among those who had the means and will to leave, but what about those who could not or did not want to? We all know how it feels to step out in a clear morning and take a deep breath of fresh air that reminds us how wonderful it is to be alive with a healthy mind and a healthy body. Isn't it injustice to be deprived of this only because you happened to be born in a wrong place?

The environmental pollution in this region is not, as is usually the case, an inevitable outcome of otherwise beneficial and necessary products of technology, but rather a result of two other conditions: one, operation of a very large petroleum industry in the midst of populated areas at very substandard levels for over a century, and two: three decades of almost continuous war and armed conflict.

Underground resources of crude oil were discovered here by British commercial interests in 1908. Since then this particular region has consistently supplied one of the largest shares of global demand for petroleum2; energy that made the twentieth century however different it became from all centuries past, whether one counts possibilities it opened for operation of other new technologies, or the fact that we even exist, as a four-fold increase in world population would not have happened without this source of energy. At the most basic level we should ask why these conditions should be the outcome for the people who happened to be living above these resources.

Since 1980 this region has seen four wars followed by internal conflict involving some of the world's largest armies and use of destructive weaponry including chemical and nuclear and scorched earth. Anyone with a real understanding of this region would tell you that there are causal links between these tragedies going back to the first, the war between Iran and Iraq. That war itself would not have happened, at least not at such length and breadth, had there not been two regimes that had sprung so much as a reaction to a long history of mainly self-interested control and interference from the outside3.

In 2014 spending time on the matter of unhealthy breathing air for the people of an Iranian province may seem like a luxury compared to what these people's neighbours are subjected to in adjacent Metsapotemia and Levant. But aren't these issues in fact all connected? and connected with us? I would say we should spend time on all of them.

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1. The Iranian calendar is a solar one and synchronises with the Gregorian calendar. It starts from "hijra" or migration of Prophet Muhammad of Islam from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, and the year changes on March 21st (beginning of spring). To convert from the Iranian year to the Gregorian year if the date is in winter one must add 622 to the Iranian year, and 621 if it is in other seasons. In this article unless the date was specified for simplicity we have always added 621.

2. According to OPEC data since 1960s Iran has supplied between five to ten percent of global petroleum consumption. During the first half of the century this share is estimated to have been similar.

3. The histories of these wars and their makings and of petroleum business in this region, as most readers would know are long and deserving of their own articles. Less well known is how differently these histories are seen and felt by the people of this region compared to what, if any is commonly presented in the West. For an indication of things to come with discovery of reserves in southern Iran, one needs only to look at the events in the following few years. In those days state of separation between the private enterprise and government in Britain was such that upon the discovery, the explorers' first act of celebration was to cable the embassy in Tehran and break the news by citing some verses of the Bible that contained references to the substance. Three years later in 1911 oil was in production, but it was not yet the ordinary people even at home in Britain who were going to see the benefits. As Britain was in a naval race with Germany, the government converted the navy fleet from coal to oil-fueled, and on initiative of First Lord of Admiralty Winston Churchill acquired controlling interest in the oil company. I am sure I have seen a quote from Churchill somewhere that said: "We won the war with Persian oil" ("the war" being the First World War of 1914-18), but I could not find this phrase anywhere on the internet; perhaps because it "shouldn't be" on the internet. In any case there is something similar from Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon who said: "The Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil." During the same war won with Persian oil, despite Iran's declared neutrality, for reasons having more to do with empire-building than defence Britain occupied this country militarily, and as has recently been researched, in all probability by buying hoarded wheat and other foodstuff at high prices caused many more starvations during a time of severe drought there (The Great Famine and Genocide in Iran, Mohammad Gholi Majd, University Press of America, 2013). The First World War, about which historians' opinions have ranged from unnecessary to stupid, was of course not much kinder to millions of others in Europe and elsewhere who faithfully obeyed the marching orders. A century later still, how much of the security threats and the wars and the backlashes, economic sanctions and the negotiations and the back and forth and the media coverage thereof are about the people who have to live with the consequences, and how much are they really about the leaders and rulers themselves? A century later, these facts of history so painful and impactful on so many of us are also still only a matter for academic recitation to a small number back in Britain, and you can read about them in more detail with keyword searches in www.historytoday.com.

Links to originals of translated content:

[1] In this report Ministry of Health data are quoted indicating that in each of the country's three largest cities every year several thousand people die of illnesses directly caused by air pollution. According to the same report the Ministry has not published data for other cities including Ahvaz where pollution is worse. You can also see a pdf copy of this report stored on our site.
[2] Report by Radio Farda or see a pdf copy stored on our site
[3] Report by Tehran_e Emrooz (This newspaper was later closed and this link no longer exists. A site called Salamat News carried the full article, or see a pdf copy stored on our site.)
[4] Report by Arman Daily or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[5] Report by Department of Environment or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[6] Report by icana.ir or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[7] Report by Mehr News or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[8] Report by IRNA or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[9] Report by nisoc.ir or see a pdf copy stored on our site.
[10] Report by Tabnak or see a pdf copy stored on our site
[11] Report by Mehr News or see a or pdf copy stored on our site.
[12] Report by Mizan or see a pdf copy stored on our site.

Image attributions:

Map of Iran: UN maps: un.org/Depts/Cartographic/english/htmain.htm
View of street in Ahvaz: farsnews.com
Woman walking in Ahvaz: khnews.ir
Woman hospitalised in Ahvaz: danakhabar.com
Ahmad Reza Lahijanzadeh (Khuzestan environment office): isdle.ir
Masoumeh Ebtekar (Organisation for Protection of Environments): shooshan.ir
Man crossing street in Ahvaz: seemorgh.com
Industrial waste gas emission near Ahvaz: isna.ir
Bridge and pedestrain in Ahvaz: irna.ir
Flames of burning gas atop oil wells: vista.ir
View of city and industrial waste gas emissions: irna.ir
Women walking with covered nostrils and men in clinics: irinn
Child in clinic with oxygen mask: hamishemadarane.blogfa.com