Kabul chokes on dirty air as temperatures plunge

January 21, 2019 by Allison Jackson
Toxic smog caused by people burning coal, wood, car tyres and garbage to keep warm, has blanketed Kabul

Kabul residents have long run the gauntlet of suicide attacks and bombs. This winter, however, they face another deadly threat: air pollution.

For weeks a thick layer of toxic smog has blanketed the sprawling city as cold air traps caused by people burning coal, wood, car tyres and even garbage to stay warm.

The choking contamination peaks in evenings and early mornings when temperatures plunge below zero.

Dangerous particulate matter, including toxins like sulphate and , hang in the air like a thick curtain, reducing visibility and making breathing difficult.

Residents complain the air is getting worse—a view supported by doctors who report a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses.

"In previous years 30 to 40 percent of our patients were suffering from acute respiratory infections, but this year it has jumped to 70 or 80 percent," said Akbar Iqbal, a doctor in the (ICU) of the Indira Gandhi children's hospital in Kabul.

"I believe the cold and pollution are the main causes."

A seasonal lack of rain and snow in Kabul, coupled with a fast-growing population, fume-belching vehicles, and proliferation of diesel-fuelled generators, are contributing to the deteriorating air quality.

The burning of coal contributes to the smog, which reduces visibility and makes breathing difficult

A former official at the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) described this winter's pollution as "deadly".

"This can cause stunting and mental development problems in children as well as miscarriages and can lead to many forms of cancer," said Abdul Hadi Zhemen, who until recently was the spokesman for NEPA.

Kabul's exceeds the World Health Organization's (WHO) safe levels on any given day in winter. Recently the city of five million people has ranked among the most polluted in the world, according to the AirVisual network.

The air quality index reading is often above 300, while at night it can top 600. Recent snow and rain offered some respite, but readings still remain well above the WHO's limits.

Any reading over 100 is considered unhealthy.

Residents complain the air is getting worse and report a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses

Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses, WHO said.

Authorities have turned to media to educate people on air pollution and encourage the use of face masks, even though they often provide poor protection.

"On the most polluted days we advise people to stay indoors... when the pollution level is at its highest," said Mohammad Kazem Homayoun, NEPA's chief for Kabul.

In a country where most people are illiterate and healthcare is limited, the information is unlikely to help many.

Doctors are also falling victim to the toxic air.

Recently the city of five million people has ranked among the most polluted in the world, according to the AirVisual network

Sohrab Noori, head of the ICU at Wazir Akbar Khan hospital—where the number of admissions for respiratory-related problems has increased—said he had developed a "winter cough" for the first time.

"I think it's an allergic reaction to the air pollution," Noori said as he walked past patients hooked up to oxygen cylinders.

"If it (air pollution) continues in the long term, in two to three months we might have a big health crisis."

Authorities use media to educate locals on air pollution, but literacy levels are low and the information is unlikely to help many

Explore further: Air pollution increases ER visits for breathing problems

Related Stories

Air pollution increases ER visits for breathing problems

January 17, 2019

As levels of ozone and fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) rise, more patients end up in the ER with breathing problems, according to the largest U.S. study of air pollution and respiratory emergency room visits of patients ...

Indian firefighters battle air pollution in New Delhi

December 27, 2018

Indian authorities have ordered firefighters in the capital to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle dust and stop garbage fires and have banned construction activity as hazardous air quality affects millions ...

Delhi 'lungs' turn sickly brown in days

November 13, 2018

A pair of artificial lungs put up in New Delhi to demonstrate the lethal effects of smog have turned a sickly dark brown within 10 days of their installation, underscoring the city's pollution crisis.

Delhi braces for pollution with emergency plan

October 15, 2018

Delhi's biggest coal power plant was set to shut down Monday as a new emergency plan to improve air quality in one of the world's most polluted cities came into force, Indian officials said.

Recommended for you

Scientists solve mystery shrouding oldest animal fossils

March 25, 2019

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) have discovered that 558 million-year-old Dickinsonia fossils do not reveal all of the features of the earliest known animals, which potentially had mouths and guts.

Earth's deep mantle flows dynamically

March 25, 2019

As ancient ocean floors plunge over 1,000 km into the Earth's deep interior, they cause hot rock in the lower mantle to flow much more dynamically than previously thought, finds a new UCL-led study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.