A Side Effect of Iranian Sanctions: Tehran’s Bad Air

An overview of Tehran, July 7.
An overview of Tehran on July 7, 2014 Kiana Hayeri for TIME

Air pollution has decreased significantly since sanctions were temporarily lifted in January. As Iran and the U.S. attempt to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the July 20 deadline, the capital city’s newly cleaner air hangs in the balance 

When the U.S., the U.N. and Europe implemented, in 2010, one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever seen globally to curb Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear-weapons program, it was widely expected that the country would soon fall to its knees. Instead, Iran absorbed the blow, and though weakened, has managed to keep its economy afloat.

The sanctions all but stopped international financial transactions, limited military purchases, reduced the import and export of petroleum products and significantly curtailed trade — but you wouldn’t know it by walking the bustling streets of Iran’s capital of Tehran. According to economist Saeed Laylaz, Iran imported $3 billion worth of European luxury cars last year, triple the number before sanctions. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of American products: from Coca-Cola to Snickers candy bars to Duracell batteries, while electronics shops even in small towns proudly display the full range of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple products — even the iPhone 5S. The sanctions didn’t hurt Iran, say Iranians; they merely amplified an economic crisis wrought by government mismanagement in the preceding years.

About the only place where the impact of sanctions is visible is in the skies above Tehran. Iran may have the fourth largest proven petroleum reserve in the world, but it refines little of its own product, depending instead on imports of fuel from Europe. Sanctions cut those commodities off, sharply reducing supplies of gasoline. In order to keep Iran’s 26.3 million cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road, government officials were forced to convert petrochemical factories into ad hoc refineries, an expensive and inefficient process that produces a low-grade fuel choked with pollutants.

The results were devastating. Already home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, Iran saw a dramatic increase in the air pollution that contribute most directly to ill health, according to a worldwide World Health Organization assessment released in 2013. It is impossible to definitively link the impact of sanctions to the rising rates of childhood asthma cases and lung disease documented by Iran’s Health Ministry over the past four years — the concurrent increase in car ownership may also play a role. But when some sanctions, including those on the import of gasoline, were lifted in January under an interim agreement that proffered relief in exchange for substantial negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact was visible.

In June 2013, the pollution in Tehran was so bad that the mountains surrounding the capital could not even be made out from the 13th floor of a hotel popular with journalists in the city center. A year later, however, the last vestiges of winter snow could be spotted high on the mountains to the north of the city. “Sanctions significantly contributed to pollution, and particularly the kinds of pollution that are damaging to health,” says Rocky Ansari, an economist and sanctions expert at Cyrus Omron International, a firm that advises international companies on investing in Iran. Even before the sanctions were lifted, he says, the government was working on improving refining capacity in the country, but the international decision to clear the way for increased imports of refined fuel was a huge boost. “Now that hardly any petrol from petrochemical factories is being used, the pollution has reduced, and already people can breathe better air.”

That may be the case, but many Iranians are still holding their breath. The interim agreement ends on July 20, and a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions is still in doubt. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of subterfuge when it comes to international inspections has raised doubts about the country’s true intentions. The U.S. wants to see a sharp reduction in Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons grade; Iran says it will not submit to overly onerous limits on its nuclear energy program.

The temporary agreement can be extended by up to six months, a point raised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sideline of talks in Vienna on July 13. “If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters, according to Reuters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend … or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.” Should the talks fail, as with several previous attempts to strike a deal, the U.S. is likely to lead the call for even tougher sanctions, risking more conflict in a region already in turmoil — and further darkening the skies above Tehran.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME Air Pollution

Broccoli-Sprout Beverage Can Detoxify Pollutants

Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Scientists have developed a drink that can clear people in China of pollutants

China has a serious pollution problem and it’s harming the health of people who live there—even those living outside of the biggest cities.

But scientists from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health think they’ve found a very simple and cost-effective solution. Or at least something that could curb risk. Their answer is a broccoli-sprout beverage.

It sounds so simple, and it really is. The results appear promising, too.

It’s pretty well established that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli have cancer-preventative compounds. Broccoli sprouts specifically are a source of glucoraphanin, which creates sulforaphane when chewed or swallowed. That compound accelerates the body’s ability to detoxify from various pollutants.

The researchers had about 300 Chinese men and women living a rural community in Jiangsu Province, China, drink a beverage of sterilized water, pineapple, lime juice and dissolved freeze-dried broccoli sprout powder. The control group drank a mixture without the sprout mixture. All the participants had their urine and blood tested, and when they did, the scientists discovered that among the participants drinking the broccoli beverage, the rate of excretion of the carcinogen benzene increased 61% and the rate of excretion of the irritant acrolein rapidly increased 23%.

“The situation is that people throughout China are breathing dirty air, and the exposure is largely unavoidable,” says study author Tom Kensler. “We wanted to boost the defense mechanism that accelerates the rate that these are cleared form the body so there is less opportunity for harm to be evoked by chemicals.”

Photo courtesy of Tom Kensler

When asked if people living in other large cities like New York or Los Angeles could benefit from drinking the same mixture, Kensler says he thinks their approach could be extended across all people. Here’s another excuse to scoop an extra helping of broccoli on your plate.

The study was published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research.




It’s Time to Stop Ignoring the Bad Air We Breathe

Air pollution
Nearly half of Americans breathe unhealthy air Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A survey shows nearly half of all Americans breathe unhealthy air — but air pollution doesn't get the attention it deserves

Take a look outside your window. Chances are the air you’ll see is far cleaner than it was decades ago. Since 1980 levels of ozone pollution — one of the main ingredients in smog — have fallen by 25% in the U.S., while nitrogen dioxide has fallen by 55% and sulfur dioxide by 78%. The change is visual too — the smog-obscured skies that were once a constant backdrop to cities like Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s are far less common. It’s easy to assume that America won the war on air pollution, and to look with pity on developing cities like Beijing and New Delhi where the air is still poisoned.

There’s just one problem with that sense of satisfaction: the data doesn’t back it up. According to a new report from the American Lung Association (ALA), nearly 148 million Americans live in areas where smog and soot particles have led to unhealthy levels of pollution. That means that for almost half of all Americans, simply breathing can be dangerous. Even worse, the report shows that some aspects of air quality have been deteriorating over the past few years in many cities — from 2010 to 2012, ozone worsened in 22 of the 25 biggest metropolitan areas, including cities like New York and Chicago. “Air pollution is not just a nuisance or the haze we see on the horizon; it’s literally putting our health in danger,” Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director of the ALA in California, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve come a long way, but the status quo in not acceptable.”

The news is far from all bad. Thanks in part to the retirement of a number of older coal-fired power plants, levels of particulate pollution — soot, in other words — have been dropping in recent years, with cities like Philadelphia and Indianapolis recording their lowest levels yet. And historically, we’re far better off — as Brad Plumer notes over at Vox, air pollutants as a whole have fallen 72% since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, even as the economy, population and energy use have all risen.

But as the ALA report makes clear, some of that progress is being lost, in part thanks to climate change — one environmental challenge we’re very much not meeting. Rising levels of ozone pollution have been linked to warmer temperatures, which will make it that much tougher to fight smog in the future. And the government could have done more — in 2011, President Obama went against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and rejected a proposal that would have tightened the ozone standard to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. (The level is currently at 75 ppb, set by former President George W. Bush, who was not exactly known as an environmental paragon.)

Those regulatory battles matter because it’s becoming increasingly clear that healthy air is a moving target. The more scientists learn about the health impacts of air pollution, the more dangerous it appears — even at comparatively low levels. Last October the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared air pollution to be a carcinogen, connecting it directly to lung cancer as well as bladder cancer. And bad air doesn’t just hurt the lungs — a raft of studies have connected air pollution, especially soot, to cardiovascular disease, even triggering heart attacks. Even autism has been linked to pollution. In March the WHO estimated that outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths globally in 2012 — nearly three times the number of people who die each year from tuberculosis.

Climate change gets most of the environmental attention, with reason — its effects are already being felt, and it has the potential to radically change our world for the worse. But air pollution is sickening and killing millions of people around the world right now. And unlike global warming, the technological and regulatory solutions to conventional air pollution already exist. That’s why it was good news yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s ability to control coal-fired power-plant emissions in 28 states. The decision excited greens because it indicates the court will eventually back even more controversial carbon regulations that the Obama White House is busy formulating now, but the regulation that was upheld — the Cross-State Pollution Rule — will prevent an estimated 45,000 deaths a year from conventional air pollution once it’s in place.

Air pollution remains stubbornly difficult to eliminate, in part because of the vagary of the wind itself, which separates the victims of pollution from its source. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her decision yesterday, quoting from the Book of John: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound therof, but canst not tell where it cometh, and whither it goeth.” But if we can’t control the air, we can control what we put into it — and protect ourselves.


TIME Courts

Supreme Court Ruling Will Force Power Plants To Stem Downwind Pollution

The 6-2 ruling is a victory for the Obama administration’s efforts to clean up air pollution from power plant emissions

The Supreme Court restored a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency rule governing power plant emissions that cross state lines Tuesday, in a 6-2 ruling that could force about 1,000 power plants to improve pollution controls or simply reduce electricity production.

The Cross-State Air Pollution rule requires 28 states, mostly in the midwestern and southern United States, to take steps to limit power plant emissions that pollute the air downwind, The Wall Street Journal reports. The regulation deals primarily with emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, both of which are known to cause heart and respiratory problems.

Tuesday’s decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reverses a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which found that the rule was too onerous in demanding emissions reductions on certain states and that the EPA didn’t give states the chance to develop their own standards. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.


TIME Air Pollution

Smoggy Sand: How Deserts Spread Air Pollution

Smog levels are high in London
High levels of air pollution in London were caused in part by Sahara sand Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Sand can blow a long way—as residents in suddenly smoggy London are learning

For the last few days, the skyline of London—so often an indifferent gray—has resembled Los Angeles in the 1960s, or Beijing. A nasty bout of smog has gripped Britain’s capital and much of England, with pollution levels so high that people with health problems and the elderly have been warned to avoid strenuous activity outside.

London’s current smog is nothing compared to the air pollution the city once suffered—the city was choked in coal smoke for much of the 19th century, and the Great Smog of 1952 killed some 4,000 people. But what’s truly unusual is the cause: not just local emissions from cars and power plants, but from dust that has blown in from the Sahara Desert in northern Africa, over 2,000 miles (3,218 km) away. The dust has blown in on northern winds, where it mixes in the air with local pollutants. The dust is brought down to earth by rain, and when that water evaporates, it leaves behind a layer of visible dust.

Britain isn’t the only place that can have dust-related smog. In East Asia, sand from the Gobi Desert is blown east every spring. The so-called Asian Dust passes over parts of China, North and South Korea and Japan, sometimes so heavy that residents can feel the dust in their eyes and their teeth. The dust can even be carried thousands of miles across the Pacific to North America—a study published in Science last year found that dust in the atmosphere can actually increase rainfall in California.

But what’s worrying is that the Gobi is growing every year, as excessive farming in China and increasingly dry weather converts grassland into desert. The Chinese government has tried to create what it calls a “Green Belt” of millions of trees that it hopes will hold back the spread of desertification, but so far, many of them have died. And climate change seems likely to increase the rate of desertification, as the Gobi gets even hotter and drier. In a changing world, not even deserts can be trusted to stay in the same place—as London is learning.


It’s Raining Saharan Sand In The U.K.

The skyscrapers of the Canary Wharf business district in London are shrouded in smog, April 2, 2014.
The skyscrapers of the Canary Wharf business district in London are shrouded in smog, April 2, 2014. Matt Dunham—AP

The hills and dales of England and Wales were covered in a fine layer of red dust, thanks to a continental air flow containing dust and sand blown up by storms in the African desert. The unusual conditions are expected to cause record pollution in the U.K.

Although Brits are used to unpleasant weather, Saharan sand is a new one.

Motorists in parts of England and Wales found their cars covered in a layer of fine red dust last weekend, The Daily Telegraph reports, which environmental experts say was blown over from the Sahara desert.

The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the pollution was caused by south-easterly winds meeting with a continental air flow containing dust and sand blown up by storms in the African desert. Those parts of the U.K. who have noticed the change in air quality will therefore experience abnormally high levels of pollution in the next few days.

Environmental experts warned on Wednesday that it will exceed the U.K. government’s official scale for measuring pollution, and that anyone with pervasive heart and lung problems should avoid intensive activity. When pollution reaches 7 or 8 on the scale older people, children with lung problems and those with asthma are warned not to exert themselves physically. However when it reaches 10, the highest point on the scale, the general population in the affected areas is told to “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors.”

Although the pollution is expected to reach very high levels on Wednesday, it is predicted to ebb away by Friday.


TIME China

Actually, You Can’t Buy Smog Insurance in China Anymore

Visitors are silhouetted against thick smog on the top of Jingshan Park near the Forbidden City in Beijing
Visitors are silhouetted against thick smog on the top of Jingshan Park near the Forbidden City in Beijing © Kim Kyung Hoon – Reuters

What a pity. Given China's appalling pollution, smog insurance looked a real winner

A week after insurance companies in China announced that they would start selling smog insurance, government regulators have ordered an end to the practice, Reuters reports. No official explanation has been offered.

One of the smog policies would have guaranteed travelers booking three- to seven day package tours to certain major cities a refund of about 50 yuan (about $8) per day if they suffered two or more consecutive days of severe smog. It was sold by the insurance group Ping An and the online travel agency Ctrip.

Another policy, launched by the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC), was directed at Beijing residents. The insurance company promised to pay 300 yuan (just under $50) to policy holders if the official index of smog in the Chinese capital exceeded the hazardous 300 level for five consecutive days, and to pay 1,500 yuan (roughly $240) to policy holders hospitalized as a result of smog.

Both Ping An and PICC have said that policies sold before the ban will be honored.


TIME Environment

WHO Report: Air Pollution Killed 7 Million People in 2012

People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing February 13, 2014. Kim Kyung Hoon—REUTERS

Heart disease, stroke brought on by air pollution led to about 80% of deaths

Air pollution killed 7 million people across the globe in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the World Health Organization.

Outdoor air pollution was linked to about 3.7 million deaths, with about 80 percent of those deaths the result of stroke and heart disease. The most air pollution-related deaths happened in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, per AFP. Meanwhile, the effects of indoor air pollution — caused by coal, wood, and open-air fires — killed an estimated 4.3 million people, NBC News reports.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” WHO’s Dr. Maria Neira said in a statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

For comparison’s sake, a 2008 WHO report estimated outdoor pollution led to about 1.3 million deaths, while about 1.9 million people were killed by indoor pollution. The jump in figures is due to a change in research methods, AFP reports.

[NBC News]


Traveling to China? Consider ‘Smog Insurance’

People wearing face masks visit Tiananmen Square as heavy air pollution shrouds Beijing on Feb. 26, 2014.
People wearing face masks visit Tiananmen Square as heavy air pollution shrouds Beijing on Feb. 26, 2014. Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

China’s largest online travel agency and a top insurance firm will begin offering a little recourse to tourists who book certain packages to major cities that end up being ruined by the country's infamous haze

File this under “You know the air is bad when …” From tomorrow, China’s largest online travel agency and a top insurance firm will start selling smog insurance for travelers.

The “haze-travel insurance” package is a collaboration between China’s largest online travel company, Ctrip, and insurance giant Ping An, reports the state-backed China Daily. Tourists who book three- to seven-day package tours to certain major cities — Beijing, Xian, Harbin, Chengdu, Guangzhou — can opt in. And should they have the misfortune of spending two or more consecutive days in severe smog, they can file claims.

The air-pollution level will be based on readings from an air-pollution app by FreshIdeas. For Beijing and Xian, an air-quality index of 200 will qualify. Harbin and Chengdu max out at 150, Shanghai and Guangzhou at 100.

Based on recent weather conditions, the odds of a payout seem solid, the China Daily notes. From Feb. 16 to March 17, Shanghai experienced 17 days of air pollution over 100 on the index, and Beijing nine days over 200. But not all were consecutive by any means, and besides, the payout ain’t big. The haze-pollution premium is priced at either 10 yuan ($1.60) or 15 yuan ($2.40), with the daily compensation limit set at 50 yuan ($8). Considering that a Starbucks break in Beijing will cost you half of that, it’s hard to get excited.

Perhaps your cash would be better spent on a decent air mask. That, you will definitely use.


Now China’s Super Rich Are Fleeing to Avoid Smog

Buildings are seen shrouded in heavy haze at Qingdao development zone, Shandong province
Buildings are seen shrouded in heavy haze at Qingdao development zone, Shandong province, February 25, 2014. Reuters—Reuters

The country's wealthiest residents are emigrating to other countries, in large part to avoid awful air pollution. The past few years have seen record-high levels of dangerous pollutants that have been linked to cancers and respiratory problems

This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. The article below was originally published at Fortune.com.

By the 1970s, Central Park was in a state of decay. Bridges were crumbling. Meadows had dried up. Graffiti and vandalism blighted playgrounds and benches. There was an overwhelming feeling that its best days had passed. “Positive use had increasingly been displaced by illicit and illegal activity,” is how the Central Park Conservancy describes it today.

Then George Soros stepped in. Frustrated by what he and others saw as New York City’s inept management of the 160-year-old institution, Soros and another financier commissioned a study on potential fixes. Its chief recommendation was creating a private citizen-based board to oversee an individual running the park’s operations — in effect, allowing private citizens to control the park. Soon the not-for-profit Central Park Conservancy was created, and the area returned to its former glory. Thirty years later the conservancy provides 75% of a nearly $60 million annual park budget and is a New York institution unto itself. The board of trustees includes former J.P. Morgan Chairman and CEO William Harrison, KKR’s Henry Kravis, and the hedge fund manager John Paulson, who two years ago announced he would give $100 million to the conservancy, the largest park donation ever.

The growing wealth gap around the world is raising concerns about economic fairness and class divisions. But Central Park’s revival illustrates the importance of the very wealthy in civic society. Their private dollars fund projects that governments won’t, and they have an especially key role in urban centers. All this explains why reports of China’s air pollution driving out wealthy residents are so troubling. Is China losing its most important residents to smog?

The air in northern Chinese cities has been poor for a while. But after the past few years of “air apocalypses” and record-high levels of PM 2.5, the dangerously small pollutants under 2.5 micrometers in size (1/30 the width of a human hair) that find their way into the bloodstream and have been linked to cancers and respiratory problems, citizens have increased complaints and growing numbers of rich have started making plans to move away.

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A recent survey provides the strongest evidence yet that China’s polluted cities risk driving away the rich. Released in January by the Hurun Research Institute, the survey shows 64% of China’s rich (those with wealth above $1.6 million) were either immigrating to another country or planning to, a rise from 60% in the last poll two years ago. That came as a surprise to Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of the Hurun Report, an annual China rich list. He wasn’t expecting the already high figure to grow. He says pollution and food safety was the second-biggest reason for emigrating, after the general desire for security and financial well-being. Although the numbers of those emigrating haven’t yet reached a critical mass, Hoogewerf says “a lot of families are finding a lot of other rich families are going overseas,” providing examples to follow.

What’s happening is that those who can avoid the smog, especially families with children, are escaping what a recent Chinese study reportedly called “unlivable” cities like Beijing. They’re seeking permanent residency in America and Canada, and European countries Cyprus, Portugal, and the U.K.

Earlier this winter I spoke with half a dozen wealthy mothers in Beijing who explained to me how pollution had some of them considering moving away. It was enlightening to hear because what the survey doesn’t tell you is that the rich don’t take moving to another country lightly. The women explained what a hard decision it was to make. China’s culture and language had them wanting to stay. But many of them were afraid for their children’s health, leading them to plans to go abroad.

I met the mothers at a Starbucks. They swapped stories about smog like others might politics or sports in the café that opened to a luxury mall with Gucci, Prada, and Tom Ford boutiques.

Feng Fairbanks has two daughters, who are 10 years old and 8 years old. The local PTA raised 200,000 RMB ($33,000 USD) to buy air purifiers so that her children can at least enjoy clean air inside the school where recess is often cancelled because of smog. She wanted her daughters to attend school longer in Beijing, but she’s returning to the U.K. with them in July. The air pollution was becoming too serious to plan on staying in Beijing for the long term. Her British husband, who runs a business consultancy in Beijing, is staying in China.

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Coco Xiao told me she avoids playing with her two daughters outside. Last summer the family toured the U.S. — visiting Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, then San Francisco — and was “amazed by the air.” Her husband is setting up a consulting business in San Francisco in part to give the family an option to escape the pollution. She says the “government cannot afford to wait” to fix the air, but she’s staying in Beijing for now.

The other mothers were more hesitant. As they sipped teas and lattes, they explained how the pollution was devastating but bearable — for the time being. May Guo, dressed fashionably in black leather boots, has a 9-year-old daughter with asthma. She pulled out a 3M mask — “the best,” she tells me — then explained that air pollution is one of many factors to consider before leaving China. There’s family, jobs, culture. She’s waiting to make a decision on leaving.

Of course, many rich will stay in smoggy Beijing and China’s other polluted cities. Opportunities in the world’s fastest-growing major economy are hard to turn down. And surveys show the Chinese remain loyal about investing at home. But the air pollution problem isn’t getting better anytime soon, and neither will the flight of China’s wealthiest residents.

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