RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's not just the guns in Kabul that are dangerous; it's also the air. In the freezing winters, many residents in Afghanistan's mile-high capital burn plastic and tires for warmth. Those lucky enough to own a car use leaded fuel.
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MONTAGNE: And then there are thousands of gas-burning generators in shops and homes across the city to provide power that the government can't. Air pollution in Kabul is so bad that President Hamid Karzai has declared an emergency. NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson lives in Kabul and has this story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Experts say Kabul is rapidly becoming one of the world's worst cities for air pollution, and nowhere is it more polluted than in this neighborhood near President Karzai's compound. Here, the rancid air casts a yellow haze. Pedestrians hurry past, pressing scarves to their faces.
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NELSON: Several American Humvees roll past Mahboobullah Bakhtiari, who is setting up a cylindrical device. He works for Afghanistan's Environmental Protection Agency and is here to measure just how bad the air is.
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Mr. MAHBOOBULLAH BAKHTIARI (National Environmental Protection Agency, Afghanistan): We put the filter in there.
NELSON: Bakhtiari places white filters into the monitor.
Mr. BAKHTIARI: And then we tight it. Now, it's ready.
NELSON: He says it will take less than a day for those filters to turn black.
Do you wear a mask yourself here knowing how bad the air is?
Mr. BAKHTIARI: No.
NELSON: Why not?
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Mr. BAKHTIARI: Because if we would wear masks, people will laugh on us.
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NELSON: They will laugh at you?
Mr. BAKHTIARI: Yeah.
NELSON: But he and others here say the smog is no laughing matter. Jarullah Mansoori is the chief of staff at the Afghan EPA.
Mr. JARULLAH MANSOORI (Chief of Staff, National Environmental Protection Agency, Afghanistan): The air pollution that we are facing currently in Afghanistan in Kabul, if such pollution exists anywhere else in the world, there will be no schools open, no shops. No government agencies will be able to function because this is seven time worse than the standards.
NELSON: And the problem is growing. Experts say there are many reasons why, such as five million people living in a city designed for 500,000. Most of them 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. 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 is a doctor at Ali-Abad hospital.
Dr. MOHAMMAD IQLIL NIAZI (Ali-Abad Hospital): (Pashto spoken).
NELSON: He says 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.
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NELSON: Like 55-year-old Mohammad Ismail, the frail shopkeeper who doesn't smoke, suffers from a chronic lung disease his doctors say is caused by air pollution. He's come 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 did. The Afghan EPA official moved to a nearby town. He says he'd rather risk attacks by militants during his commute to Kabul than let his kids breathe the air here. Yet few in the government besides Mansoori have paid attention to air pollution.
Mr. MANSOORI: Something is definite that previously environment was not priority for this government. Security, defense, other issues were priority.
NELSON: Mansoori's agency was given no teeth and little money when it was established three years ago. Even now, there are few environmental laws on the books, none of which are enforced because of rampant bribe-taking. At a recent cabinet meeting, President Karzai declared such inaction must end and quickly. Mansoori, who was there, 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.
Mr. MANSOORI: Now I think the cabinet members and the president himself, they came to know that if you don't have safe environment, clean environment, you never have safe economic development and sound social development.
NELSON: But Mansoori says that doesn't change the fact it will take years to reduce smog here. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Najib Sharifi contributed to that report.
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