By Ali Akbar Dareini
The Associated Press

TEHRAN – In Tehran’s northern suburbs, 24-year-old Sepehr Shaygan is nursing a stubborn headache he blames on the smog. His mother puts on a surgical mask to do the shopping for a barbecue on the roof.

The family then peered out into a soup of yellow haze instead of the vista of cityscape and distant mountains when the weather is clear.

“Unbreathable” is how Shaygan described the air quality in Iran’s smog-shrouded capital these days. He’ll get no argument from worried city officials.

For the third workday in two weeks, Tehran was effectively shut down Thursday because of “unhealthy” pollution levels. Government offices, schools, banks, factories and many other sites were ordered closed to try keep the eye-stinging cloud from growing any worse.

A spell of bad air is nothing new for Tehran, home to more than 12 million people and seemingly round-the-clock traffic jams of more than 3 million cars and buses. One of the urban landmarks in central Tehran is a giant air quality gauge.

But the current cloak is more noxious and lingering longer than most others.

Iran’s health ministry has issued a warning for people with respiratory and heart ailments to stay at home. The same goes for the elderly and children. The health advisory also recommended surgical masks for taxi drivers and others who must be outside.

Some residents are making a break for the country. Nima Jam, a 31-year-old chemical technician, said he was “going for some air” near the Caspian Sea coast on the other side of the towering Alborz Mountains that ring Tehran’s northern edge and provide a stunningly beautiful backdrop in nice weather.

But the mountains are also one of the chief reasons for the pollution’s chronic choke-hold on Tehran. The steep slopes act like a thermal catch basin, trapping the smog and blocking winds – much like the atmospherics in other pollution-prone places such as Los Angeles and Mexico City.

There’s also a financial hit to the dirty air. Each “smog holiday” is estimated to bring $130 million in financial losses in a country already gasping under a stumbling economy and international sanctions.

There’s no shortage of pollution-busting plans, though. They run from the obvious – such as expanding public transportation and encouraging natural gas heating systems – to the much more exotic.

The head of Iran’s environmental protection agency said government researchers are studying ways to try to shake up the atmosphere to bring rain. Or perhaps create manmade wind corridors to blow away the smog.

Such ideas, however, have come in LA over the decades but lose steam because of the costs and dubious benefits.

“We have many plans,” promised environment chief, Mohammad-Javad Mohammadizadeh, told the semiofficial Mashregh news agency.

One of them, in fact, calls for a mass migration from Tehran – which, ironically, was selected as the capital for Iran’s rulers more than two centuries ago because of its healthy climate.

Last year, the ruling clerics revived discussions of actually moving to a new purpose-built capital in the coming generations.

The idea to find a more hospitable hub – away from the pollution and the earthquake fault lines near Tehran – has been widely viewed as nothing more than a fantasy.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is encouraging some baby steps. His government has backed an ambitious effort to shift many ministries and agencies to other cities.

So far just a few have relocated, but he’s vowed to press on.

He’s also set up a panel to study the health fallout on Tehran’s air pollution, said deputy health minister Alireza Mesdaghi Nia at a news conference Thursday.

The team can start its work right away, he said, because the weather conditions causing the smog dome is expected to last until sometime next week, he was quoted by the semiofficial news agency Mehrnews.

“If we need more days off because of the pollution, then we will call them,” he said.

3 December 2010