EghtesadOnline: Head of Department of Environment (DoE) Masoumeh Ebtekar says while air pollution is one of the leading causes of cancer, mortality caused by this disease in Iran is still lower than in many industrialized countries.
Ebtekar, in an exclusive interview which was published on Wednesday in Tehran-based English newspaper Iran Daily, expounded on measures taken by President Hassan Rouhani Government to fight air pollution and some other environmental issues. The following is excerpts of the interview:
IRAN DAILY: Some strongly hold that the growing number of cancer-caused deaths, particularly in the Iranian capital of Tehran, is linked with the metropolises’ air pollution. What is your take?
MASOUMEH EBTEKAR: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is one of the leading causes of cancer. The fact is that people are more exposed to air pollutants in industrialized areas and metropolises where exhaust gas and auto-industrial emission can create a hazardous situation. This has increased health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, stroke, asthma, allergy and cancer. Nevertheless, cancer mortality rate in Iran is still lower than that in many industrialized countries.
No doubt, the level of air pollution in Iranian metropolises is higher than that in other parts of the country. Cancer is a multi-factorial disease with the environmental risks being among them. Other causes of contracting cancer are genetic, infectious and viral diseases.
What has the DoE done to bring cancer mortality rate down?
Since the incumbent government took office in 2013, a number of measures have been taken such as developing a comprehensive national plan to combat air pollution. Improving the quality of fuel consumed by vehicles and plants in Iran, particularly gasoline, was the first step in implementing the plan. Earlier, the gasoline produced in Iranian refineries included a high percentage of benzene — a hazardous carcinogenic aromatic substance. Therefore, Euro 4 gasoline was introduced by mid-2014 the distribution of which was gradually ensured in eight Iranian metropolises. This drastically lowered the level of benzene in ambient air in major cities. In addition, we raised the standards of the automotive industry to meet Euro 4 standards.
Are those standards truly enforced?
Yes, we apply a regular inspection system in all domestic automobile production lines to make sure if they conform to Euro 4 standards. Two types of tests are conducted on Iranian cars to evaluate their quality: Type approval and conformity of production which both measure the extent of the cars’ conformity to Euro 4 standards.
We have also employed another strategy to renew in Iran’s obsolete public transportation system, including buses, minibuses and taxis. Iranian banks are also assisting us in implementing the plan by providing loans. Currently, 60,000 taxis are being renewed.
Earlier, major power plants adjacent to Iranian metropolises used mazut as their feedstock which is very heavy and polluting. We submitted a plan to the government according to which the Oil Ministry, in 2013, started to gradually replace mazut by natural gas in the power plants. By mid-March 2017, we will completely stop mazut consumption in major power plants.
We [the Rouhani administration] also intend to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases in Iran. We have signed the Paris Agreement and are committed to a 12-percent reduction of the amount of greenhouse gases by 2030. It included four percent unconditional reduction and eight percent conditional to the removal of all Western sanctions against Iran.
Therefore, all Iranian sectors are required to remain fully committed to the achievement of the abovementioned target.
Consequently in 2016, we have had more than 23 days of higher air quality (clean air) compared to last year.
Earlier, you have recently mentioned when the ongoing wars in neighboring countries, namely Iraq and Syria, are over, we will be able to resolve the issue of dust particles and haze in southern and western Iranian. But the no one knows when those conflicts end. So, what would be your Plan B?
There are both internal and external sources of dust storm. Thanks to the favorable precipitation in Iranian cities over the past few months, the percentage of dust storms caused by the internal sources was lower compared to those blown in from external sources (70 percent) such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iraq-Syria and Iraq-Jordan borders.
Studies indicate that Iraq has about eight million hectares of dust storms hotspots. This is while the figure for Iran stands at 2.8 million which is growing due to the country’s prolonged drought.
According to a recent study conducted by University of Tehran, dust storms blowing in from Iraq are sending about between five to seven million tons of dust particles to Iran.
During the past Iranian government’s tenure, we started a discussion with the Iraqi government, which is followed by the Rouhani administration, in a bid to work on a 200-hectare area around Karbala to prevent the dust storms from blowing in to Iran by plantation of trees. I personally planted a number of saplings in Karbala to begin the project which was coincided with the terrorist attacks of the Daesh and Takfiri groups in the country. Poor security in Iraq became an obstacle to the implementation of the project.
We took the issue to the United Nations. Last year, the UN General Assembly issued a resolution on sand and dust storms, which is a global concern, in which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a mandate to develop a global report on dust storms. About 50 days ago, we had a UN environment assembly at the ministerial level in which another resolution was drafted to enable countries to develop the necessary financial and technical means of combating dust storms. Therefore, several international mechanisms and UN resolutions have been activated and issued pertaining to the issue. We will continue work in this field until we completely resolve the problem. At the national level, we have also developed our national strategy and work plan to address the dust storm hotspots and respond to related emergencies.
Recently, Iran’s Environment Journalists Association has been formed. How can it help the DoE achieve its goals?
Iranian journalists are very serious about environmental issues. They have a lot of passion and interest in the issue. Adopting science-based approaches to environmental issues and preparing reports are of utmost importance.
Are you holding any courses for them?
Yes, we regularly hold annual courses for Iranian journalists on different environmental issues.