Every year about 70% of the fatalities in Tehran are caused by respiratory and heart failure that is directly or indirectly associated with the air pollution. Nationwide, 80,000 people died prematurely due to pollution in 2012, according to official figures.

Air pollution has been linked to blood cancer in children, decreased brain activity, lung and stomach cancer, genetic disorders and problems with memory. Some people in Tehran suffer from a very rare respiratory disease — anthracotic lung or black lung, usually associated with coal miners.

Indeed, one Iranian authority has indicated that air pollution has been responsible for more deaths in Iran than the quarter million people who died during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. However, the research study remains classified.

During the winter, Tehran has often ground to a halt, with emergency rooms filling up with patients and schools, government offices, and businesses shutting down due to the thick smog. For example, on one day in December 2014, 400 people were hospitalized and another 1,500 sought medical treatment for pollution-related illnesses.

One of the contributors to air pollution is poor quality gasoline produced by outdated oil refineries. The country may be brimming with crude oil, but it can’t convert enough of the raw product into refined fuels such as diesel, kerosene, or gasoline. International sanctions and political pressure from the United States and other countries have discouraged multinational energy companies from making large-scale investments in Iran’s infrastructure for decades.

Iran has tried over the years to diminish air pollution by eliminating old vehicles. In 2003, a standard called ISIRI 4241-2(governing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions) was established and tests performed to determine the fuel consumption of locally produced vehicles. About 90 percent of those vehicles failed to meet the then Euro 2 standard, which set limits for carbon monoxide emissions and unburned hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. 

At around the same time, international efforts began escalating to deter Iran from expanding its nuclear infrastructure and achieving the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Sanctions proponents identified a key Iranian strategic vulnerability: its lack of refining capacity to meet the domestic need for gasoline and other essential petroleum products. With a rising population and increased ownership of automobiles, Iran’s gasoline consumption rose by nearly 13 percent annually from 2001-2006. As a result, the country consumed far more gasoline than its refineries could provide. In 2006 production stood at 10.5 million gallons a day, compared with daily demand of 18.5 million gallons. This resulted in Iran becoming the world’s second largest gasoline importer.

Anticipating new sanctions on importing refined products, the government of then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decided to produce more gasoline domestically and to take other steps to increase Iran’s energy independence.  

In 2006, Ahmadinejad in an interview revealed Iran had embarked on a crash program to convert many of the country’s vehicles to run on natural gas rather than gasoline. Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia — over 900 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, 16% of the world’s total, with much more yet to be discovered.

The government also converted several petrochemical plants to refineries, which produced low quality gasoline. In 2010, when Ahmadinejad declared the country self-sufficient in gasoline, Iran’s refineries were forced to run constantly and without regular maintenance.

The use of petrochemical plants, which usually produce plastics, to make gasoline came at a high cost. The resulting fuel contained additives that are hazardous to health and banned in most Western countries. Paul Sampson, an analyst at Energy Intelligence, said the sanctions forced Iran to be creative and to compromise quality. “They’ve been putting petrochemical components like benzenes and Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether into the gasoline, which has increased overall supplies but reduced the quality,” he said.

One retired chemist added that Iran used a process called pyrolysis to extract fuel from spent petrochemical waste, a method he described as “very unhealthy and expensive.”

According to a Bloomberg report, Iran needs about $14 billion to upgrade five existing refineries to produce gasoline that burns more cleanly. Abbas Kazemi, managing director of the National Iranian Oil Refining & Distribution Co, in 2016 said that he has a plan to increase refining capacity in four years from 1.85 million barrels a day currently to 3.2 million barrels by 2020.

In December 2016, the National Iranian Oil Company and South Korea’s construction conglomerate Daelim Industrial Company reached an agreement to cooperate on improving oil-refining facilities in Isfahan province. Construction for the $2 billion deal will take 48 months after groundbreaking.

Tushar Tarun Bansal, an oil analyst at FGE Singapore, an energy consulting firm, has suggested that Iran transform condensates into gasoline to help deal with the shortages. He said that would help Iran cut imports starting in the second quarter of 2017.

Beyond its impact on public health, poor quality gasoline also harms car engines. The owner of a chain of private gas stations in Tehran told the Los Angeles Times blog Babylon & Beyond that his customers were complaining about the effect of domestically produced gasoline on car engines.

According to a 2016 report by the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, Iran is the largest automaker in the Middle East and the fifth in Asia, after China, Japan, South Korea and India. Iran also has ambitious plans to increase production now that nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted.

These ambitions could complicate Iranian plans to reduce CO2 emissions in line with the recent Paris climate accord.

Statista data shows that Iran is among the top ten CO2-emitting countries after China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Germany and South Korea, and before Canada and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s per-capita CO2 emissions decreased in 2015 and Iran has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change by 4% by 2030 and even more with international cooperation.

Acquisition, implementation, and investment in technology to improve the oil refining process and pollution-control devices on new automobiles are crucial. The Iranian government should also focus on seeking international support for dealing with the health problems associated with air pollution.

Vida Balikhani is an Iranian investigative journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign economic affairs. She is a contributor to several websites. She is currently working as an independent consultant.