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Afghans Feel Ill Effects Of Rising Air Pollution

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Afghans Feel Ill Effects Of Rising Air Pollution

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Afghans Feel Ill Effects Of Rising Air Pollution

Afghans Feel Ill Effects Of Rising Air Pollution

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A thick smog envelops Kabul on most days. In the afternoons, the haze is so thick that even these mountains and buildings are barely visible. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

A thick smog envelops Kabul on most days. In the afternoons, the haze is so thick that even these mountains and buildings are barely visible.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Mahboobullah Bakhtiari, a specialist with Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, sets up an air pollution monitor in downtown Kabul. These monitors — placed at eight locations in the Afghan capital — have shown Kabul's air pollution is worse than any other city in the region. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Mahboobullah Bakhtiari, a specialist with Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, sets up an air pollution monitor in downtown Kabul. These monitors — placed at eight locations in the Afghan capital — have shown Kabul's air pollution is worse than any other city in the region.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

How Afghanistan Compares

According to Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was 52 ppm (parts per million) on an average day in Kabul in 2008. The U.S. EPA national air quality standard is .053 ppm.

The level of sulfur dioxide (SO2) was 37 ppm on an average day in Kabul in 2008. The U.S. EPA national air quality standard is .030 ppm.

According to the U.S. EPA, exposure to NO2, SO2 and other particulate matter negatively affects the respiratory system, damages lung tissue, and can cause cancer and premature death. The elderly, children and people with chronic lung disease, influenza or asthma tend to be especially sensitive to the effects of particulate matter.

Older cars using lead fuel are the main source of Kabul's air pollution. On this day — Jan. 7, the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura — traffic is light so visibility is better than normal. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Older cars using lead fuel are the main source of Kabul's air pollution. On this day — Jan. 7, the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura — traffic is light so visibility is better than normal.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Air pollution in the Afghan capital of Kabul is so serious that President Hamid Karzai has declared a state of emergency.

Many residents burn plastic and tires for warmth. Those lucky enough to own a car use leaded fuel. Plus, thousands of gas-burning generators in shops and homes across the city provide power that the government can't.

Experts say Kabul is rapidly becoming one of the world's worst cities for air pollution, and nowhere is it more polluted than in a neighborhood near the presidential compound.

Measuring The Problem

Here, the rancid air casts a yellow haze. Pedestrians hurry past, pressing scarves to their faces.

Several American Humvees roll past Mahboobullah Bakhtiari, who is setting up a cylindrical device. He works for Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency and is here to measure just how bad the air is.

Bakhtiari places white filters in the monitor. He says it will take less than a day for those filters to turn black.

Jarullah Mansoori, chief of staff at the Afghan EPA, says air pollution in Kabul is seven times more than what is considered safe.

"The pollution that we are facing currently in Afghanistan and Kabul, if such pollution existed anywhere else in the world, there would be no schools open, no shops. No government agencies would be able to function," he says.

And the problem is growing. Experts say there are many reasons why. For example, Kabul has a population of 5 million people; it was designed for just 500,000. Most residents burn wood, coal and trash to keep warm during the cold winters. Raw sewage and dust add to the smog, as do factories that spew unfiltered smoke.

There are also 10 times as many cars on the streets now than during the Taliban era. Most are foreign castoffs that run on leaded fuel.

Ailments On The Rise

The result of all this smog is seen in hospitals across Kabul. Doctors say residents flock to them with lung and heart ailments as well as cancers.

Mohammad Iqlil Niazi, a doctor at Ali-Abad hospital, says that four years ago, one in five patients had an ailment triggered by air pollution. Now, he estimates one in three is sick from the smog.

Mohammad Ismail, 55, is one of them. The frail shopkeeper who doesn't smoke suffers from a chronic lung disease his doctors say is caused by air pollution. He comes to the hospital for drugs to ease his cough. His doctors say the only real remedy is for him to leave Kabul.

That's what Mansoori, the Afghan EPA official, did. He moved to a nearby town. He says he would rather risk attacks by militants during his commute to Kabul than let his kids breathe the air here.

Situation Will Require Years To Improve

Yet few in the government besides Mansoori have paid attention to air pollution. He says that issues such as security and defense were a priority — not the environment.

The government established its EPA three years ago — but gave it no teeth and little money. Even now, few environmental laws are on the books, and none are enforced because of rampant bribe-taking.

At a recent Cabinet meeting, President Karzai declared that such inaction must end quickly.

Mansoori, who was at that meeting, says Karzai authorized $100 million to buy equipment to reduce air pollution in Kabul. He formed an emergency committee with far-reaching powers to tackle the problem.

Mansoori says the president also ordered that bushes be handed out to residents for planting to help absorb the toxins.

He says he thinks the Cabinet members and the president himself now realize that a clean environment is necessary for economic and social development.

But Mansoori says that doesn't change the fact that it will take years to reduce the smog.

NPR's Najib Sharifi contributed to this report.

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