Do you live in a polluted city? It’s a complaint often heard by the residents of “super-cities” like New York and London that their air isn’t clean, but it might surprise you to know that both those cities have relatively healthy air, according to the WHO. On their air pollution database, they use a measure called PM10, which tells you the amount of small particles found in the air of each city – small being smaller than 10 microns. These are the particles that you can breathe into your lungs, so it’s an important measure to look at when it comes to health risks. On their scale, New York comes in at around 21ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), compared to a global average of 71 – and the lower, the better. London also does pretty well with just 29 ug/m3.
So where are all these cities that are bumping up the global average? The results may surprise you, as most lists use the 2007 top 10, as published by Time (this list also takes into account other types of pollutants. But things change quickly, and the data from the WHO in 2011 has some new contenders, so here are our Top 10 Cities With The Most Polluted Air.
10. Kanpur, India
This industrial city is known as the “Manchester of the East”, so it doesn’t immediately fill you with visions of green meadows and clear waters. But the reality is grimmer than most imagined before the WHO results were published – Kanpur is the second most polluted city in India with a score of 209 ug/m3. It’s the leather capital of the region, with a large tannery but it also has steel factoriesand many other industries. As an economic center, it’s flourishing but the environment is suffering as a result. The famous River Ganges runs through the city, but reports say that the water in it is unfit for human consumption, with its “pale yellowish” water containing high levels of nitrates. Possibly one to avoid on travels around the sub-continent.
9. Yasouj, Iran
One of four Iranian cities to appear in the top ten this is an industrial city, with a sugar processing plant and a coal-burning power plant which both contribute to the score of 215 ug/m3. There are also plans to build a refinery there, which will only exacerbate the problem. Apart from the highly polluted air, the city is said to be quite beautiful, sitting at the foot of the Zagros mountain range with its own waterfall.
8. Gaborone, Botswana
The tripadvisor page for Gaborone describes it as a “young metropolis” with “glittering hotels”. They fail to mention its 216 ug/m3 air pollution rating. According to local sources, the pollution is at its peak in the month of May and drops during August and September. Various causes of the pollution are cited, including imported cars and people cooking over paraffin stoves and even animal dung. It’s a popular destination thanks to its proximity to the national parks, but the winter months are best avoided if you don’t want to be inhaling other people’s heating fumes…
7. Peshawar, Pakistan
This Pakistani city is the second most polluted in the country at 219 ug/m3, beating the capital Lahore which can be found in eleventh place. Reports from 2006 showed the city at sixth place and “getting worse”, despite the government taking anti-pollution measures. Clearly the measures were ineffective, given how polluted the air still is. Part of the problem is the auto-rickshaws that clog up the streets and belch out fumes.
But it’s not just the air – the Kabul river canal is also heavily polluted, with discarded food containers filling the channel. The city has also been subject to Taliban bombings and was used as a refugee camp during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. Enough to remove this city from your vacation plans yet?
6. Kermanshah, Iran
With an air pollution index of 229 ug/m3, this is another Iranian city with a serious pollution problem. Traditionally an agricultural center, the city is fast becoming industrialized with 256 manufacturing units within the city, including Kermanshah Oil Refining Company which was established in 1932 by the British. Industries today include sugar refining, petrochemicals and electrical equipment all of which are starting to overwhelm the city.
But the real problem lies in the dust storms that regularly sweep through – a 2009 report says “It is not possible to see anything in a distance of over 100 meters in the city of Kermanshah”. The dust caused dozens of hospitalizations – combined with the rising level of industry, the city could become the most polluted city in Iran by the time the next report comes out.
5. Quetta, Pakistan
Even more polluted than Peshawar, this city has a measure of 251 ug/m3, making it the most polluted city in a fairly polluted country. Local reports call it a “serious environmental issue for human health” and a panel of experts met in the city after the 2011 index came out, to formulate their “Action Plan for Reducing Air Pollution and Improving Air Quality Management in Quetta City”.
Part of the damage came from 2011 protests by Shiite Muslims, against the Qandhari Imambargah Alamdar Road blasts which killed 81 people. The protests took the form of burning tyres, which is a common form of protest in Pakistan, but is hideously bad for the environment. There have been calls for protesters to use alternative methods of protest, such as lighting candles but as recently as April 2013, the tyre-burning was still occurring. It doesn’t bode well for Quetta’s environmental future.
4. Ludhiana, India
And now to the most polluted city in Pakistan’s rival, India. With an air pollution measure matching Quetta’s, this is another place that faces serious problems in the near future. The Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) again blames the auto-rickshaws for the pollution, as they run on enviro-unfriendly diesel, but the PPCB have yet to implement a viable alternative, such as a clean-running bus service. In the Times of India, the PPCB chairman Kahan Singh Pannu had this to say: “it’s true that pollution levels in Ludhiana are more than other cities and we taking steps to check it” but then went on to blame other people for the lack of action against the rickshaws.
Air is not the only problem in Ludhiana – the river is also extremely polluted, thanks to run-off from the dyeing industries (pictured above). If Ludhiana is ever going to lose its place as India’s most polluted city, it needs to make some radical changes and fast.
3. Sanandaj, Iran
Another Iranian city that is suffering from both dust storms and heavy industrialization, the air pollution here is 254ug/m3. However, the Iranians are keen to shift the blame – one report from the Fars News Agency puts the blame onto the American forces in neighboring Iraq, who have destroyed the agriculture there and so have caused the dust storms. The head of Iran’s Meteorological Organization, Bahram Sanai, also said that the Allied occupation of Iraq was responsible for the lack of sustainable growth in the country. Whether these theories are true is unclear, but with so many cities in the top 10, it seems that Iran needs to sort out its own problems rather than trying to deflect blame onto the Americans.
2. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country in the world, so it’s quite surprising that its capital is crowded and very polluted. The Lonely Planet travel guide describes it as “a cauldron of concrete and dirt” and at 279ug/m3 they’re not wrong. The pollution comes from a number of sources – dust from the unpaved roads, emissions from wood-burning stoves and the heavy traffic.
Luckily, the World Bank is helping out with its Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project, costing a hefty $21.89million. The problems are evident, with birth defects on the increase due to the pollution and the challenges are myriad – Ulaanbaatar’s position in a valley means the air is trapped and can’t circulate properly. Hopefully the World Bank’s project will succeed, as the health consequences of such bad air pollution are frightening.
1. Ahvaz, Iran
If you’ve been paying attention so far, you won’t be surprised to hear that an Iranian city tops the list of most polluted cities. With a whopping 372ug/m3, it is by far the worst air of any city in the world. Again, it’s an unhealthy combination of duststorms and factory emissions. As one report says, “Unusual development and growth of the city, undesired placement of heavy industries, such as iron and steel plants, airport, and exploration of oil wells in a nearby city, in addition to heavy traffic … have made the city like an island of heat and pollution” (Chamran University, 2002).
The extreme temperatures don’t help, with the average high in July a sweltering 115.2F. The city also suffered a series of bombings in 2005, related to the war in Iraq. Iran is a beautiful country in some ways, with many areas of unblemished countryside….but if you’re planning a visit, it’s probably best to give Ahvaz a miss.