TEHRAN, Iran -- Already battered by international threats against their nation's nuclear program, sanctions and a broken economy, Iranians living here in the capital are now trying to cope with what has become an annual pollution peril: a yellowish haze that engulfs Tehran this time of year.
For nearly a week, officials here and in other large cities have been calling on residents to remain indoors or avoid downtown areas, saying that with air pollution at such high levels, venturing outside could be tantamount to "suicide," state radio reported Saturday.
On Sunday, government offices, schools, universities and banks reopened after the government had ordered them to shut down for five days to help ease the chronic pollution. Tehran's normally bustling streets were largely deserted.
Residents who dare to go outside cover their mouths and noses with scarves or surgical masks, but their eyes tear up and their throats sting from the mist of pollutants, which a report by the municipality of Tehran says is made up of a mixture of particles containing lead, sulfur dioxins and benzene.
"It feels as if even God has turned against us," Azadeh, a 32-year-old artist, said on a recent day as she looked out a window in her apartment that often offers a clear view of Tehran, a sprawling city that is home to millions. But on this day, Azadeh, who did not want her full name used, saw only the blurred outlines of high-rise buildings and the Milad communications tower in the distance. The setting sun was reduced to a yellowish coin by the thick blanket of smog.
The haze of pollution occurs every year when cold air and windless days trap fumes belched out by millions of cars and hundreds of old factories between the peaks of the majestic Alborz mountain range, which embraces Tehran like a crescent moon.
Iran is prominently represented in the World Health Organization's 2011 report on air quality and health, with three of its provincial towns among the organization's list of the world's 10 most-polluted cities. According to the report, Tehran has roughly four times as many polluting particles per cubic meter as Los Angeles. Many cities known for their poor air quality, like Mexico City, Shanghai and Bangkok, are all cleaner than Tehran.
But since 2010, when American sanctions on Iranian imports of refined gasoline began to bite, the situation has grown worse, according to the report by the municipality of Tehran.
Faced with possible fuel shortages, Iran surprised outsiders by quickly making up for the loss of imports by producing its own brew of gasoline. While the emergency fuel kept vehicles running, local experts warned that it was creating much more pollution.
A recently released report by Tehran's department of air quality control contained blank spaces where there should have been information about levels of benzene and lead -- components of gasoline -- in the capital's air. But the report did state that while Tehran experienced more than 300 "healthy days" in 2009, in 2011 there were fewer than 150.
Iran's Health Ministry has reported a rise in respiratory and heart diseases, as well as an increase in a variety of cancers that it says are related to pollution.
The state newspaper Resalat called the pollution a continuing crisis, and it urged the authorities to act. "Why is it that when the winds pick up, this problem is again quickly forgotten?" an editorial asked. Another newspaper, Donya-e-Eqtesad, which is critical of the government, pressed for an improvement in gasoline standards.
The pollution caused by the use of the emergency fuel concoction has been a taboo subject here, as officials try to portray each measure to counter the economic sanctions as a success that should not to be criticized by the local news media.
On state television, several officials have denied that the yellow haze has anything to do with the locally produced gasoline.
In an interview earlier this month, Ali Mohammad Sha'eri, the deputy director of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization, strongly denied that the pollution was linked to gasoline. However, he said that only 20 percent of the emergency fuel was up to modern standards. "Hopefully in three months that level will be 50 percent," he said.
Meanwhile, the government has imposed strict traffic regulations in Tehran, Isfahan and other major population centers. An odd-even traffic-control plan based on the last digit of vehicle license plates keeps about half of the approximately 3.5 million cars in Tehran off the streets on a daily basis.
Other plans to combat the pollution have been less realistic, analysts say. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long advocated a plan to move civil servants from Tehran to reduce overpopulation in the capital. In 2010, the governor of Tehran province ordered crop-dusters to dump water on the smog in an effort to dissipate it. There have also been plans for placing air purifiers in the city, but experts say they will not work in open spaces.
For those living in Tehran and unable to leave town for a vacation home on the Caspian Sea, waiting for the winds to pick up seems to be the only option.
"My head hurts, and I'm constantly dead tired," said Niloufar Mohammadi, a university student. "I try not to go out, but I can smell the pollution in my room as I am trying to study."