Pollution in all its forms is growing in importance as we seek to mitigate the disastrous impact it is having on the environment. Although it’s a challenge everyone needs to take up around the world, there are some areas in particular where the problem is much worse.
A number of studies have been published looking at different types of pollution. Last year, the World Health Organisation released a study measuring air pollution in the world’s major cities, warning that many urban areas in Asia especially, had levels of harmful substances in the air that were well above its recommended levels. Of the top 20 cities in the study, 13 were to be found in India.
However, the WHO study only examined a portion of the world’s cities, and focused on air pollution, so this list is not based exclusively on that report. There are a variety of reasons for high levels of pollution in each place, as the list below shows. In some cases, expanding economies have driven industrialisation and an increased use of automobiles to such an extent that pollution has gotten out of control. In other cases, industrial disasters have triggered catastrophic consequences, and not just due to one-off accidents.
While this may look like quite grim reading, the WHO does also point to cities with the most clean air. Most of these are to be found in Canada, but cities from Finland and the United States also make it in to the top 10. The following list contains the 12 most polluted cities around the world.
12 Delhi, India
The WHO deemed Delhi to be the city in the world with the worst air pollution. Delhi’s level of pollution was nine times worse than in London, and almost twice as bad as the worst Chinese city in the WHO’s study. As a consequence of India’s rapid urbanization and economic expansion, a massive growth in the number of cars on Delhi’s roads is recorded each year, which is believed to be one of the main causes for the poor air quality. In addition, measures taken in China to tackle the notorious problem of smog in Beijing, although only having a limited impact, appear to be more than what is being done in India.
11 Lucknow, India
India’s eighth largest city has been one of the most polluted in several studies, principally due to its poor air quality and drinking water. The city is situated on the river Gomti, but there has been a failure to build an adequate water treatment plant to purify drinking water for the city. Air pollution is exacerbated by the increased preference for private cars rather than public transport, as well as a close proximity to industrial areas. Some have blamed the government for its inability to take decisive action to improve conditions in the city.
10 Sumqayit, Azerbaijan
Now part of Azerbaijan, Sumqayit’s problems started when it was one of the Soviet Union’s key industrial centers for the production of industrial and agricultural chemicals. Attempts to manufacture these products as quickly as possible and at a low cost, led to catastrophic environmental damage as waste from mercury, oil and other heavy metals escaped from the 40 factories housed in the city. Today, there are still cases of industrial waste being dumped improperly and a complete lack of environmental protection persists. According to a study supported in part by the WHO, cancer rates in the city are between 22 and 51 percent higher than in the rest of the country. Another major problem is birth defects and still births.
9 Norilsk, Russia
One of the world’s largest mining complexes is located near the Russian city of Norilsk, which has a population of 170,000 and is located above the Arctic circle. The pollution has got so bad from these practices, which include melting plants that emit toxic gases, that no vegetation grows in a 20 mile radius of the town. As compensation for working in such terrible conditions, workers are given 90 days holiday per year and can retire at 45. But the city’s residents suffer an unusually high rate of horrific cancers, skin conditions and depression. In the past, the city was used by the Soviet Union as a location for a gulag, where the prisoners were subjected to slave labor between 1935 and 1956.
8 La Oroya, Peru
Since 1922, an American-based company has been operating a polymetallic smelter near the small town of La Oroya in the Peruvian Andes. Its emissions have caused thousands of people to be exposed to dangerous substances, including lead, copper, zinc and sulfur dioxide. Unusually high levels of lead have been detected in children’s blood, and the period of time over which the contamination has occurred means that the entire environment has been affected. Work is on-going to determine the level of soil contamination in the region, with the high levels of sulfur dioxide expected to have had a significant impact. A large campaign has developed to demand that the company implement an environmental management plan for the plant designed to cut harmful emissions.
7 Vapi, India
The town has suffered severely due to the rapid industrialization that has occurred in India over recent years. Located at the end of a 400 kilometer long line of industrial estates, Vapi’s ground water has been contaminated by mercury and other heavy metals. Measurements suggest that the levels of mercury in the town’s water is 96 times higher than the levels recommended by the WHO. Beyond this, traces of heavy metals are also found in the air, and even in produce sold in the town. The government has imposed a ban on the expansion of any projects in the local region in a bid to get on top of the crisis, but in 2013, it reported little change after two-and-a-half years of the ban’s enforcement.
6 Sukinda, India
The area contains a large percentage of India’s chromium mining industry, which continues to operate twelve mines with only minimal environmental protection measures. Haxavalent chromium has made its way into the water supply, contaminating the drinking water of over 2 million people. Chromite dust impacts the residents through the air and in the soil, and it also provokes debilitating illnesses among mine workers. These include tuberculosis and asthma. Mining companies have come to recognize the extent of the pollution, leading them to install some treatment plants to limit the damage. However, investigations have suggested that these are not up to international standards and are doing little to reduce the contamination.
5 Tianying, China
The town located in Anhui province has been the center of lead production in China for some time. The fumes created from lead are extremely poisonous, and due to this and the lack of modern technology in the production process, the area has suffered severely. The government was compelled to close some of the lead factories in 2003, but Tianying still placed high on the Blacksmith Institute’s list of polluted places around the world in 2007. Other mining operations and the processing of other types of heavy metals have contributed to the dangerous environmental conditions, which are estimated to affect 140,000 people.
4 Kabwe, Zambia
Lead was discovered in Kabwe in 1902, and the find resulted in the city growing to become the country’s second largest. The lead mining that developed was added to by the building of a smelter nearby, producing large quantities of toxic gases. The smelter continued to run until 1994. Deposits of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc were found up to 20 miles away from the smelter and mining operations, which were never regulated while they were running. Children continue to suffer from lead poisoning, and the mine and smelter have largely been abandoned with few efforts made to clean up the damage. But due to the poverty of the area, many residents are compelled to continue searching the old mines for scrap metal and coal to make a living.
3 Linfen, China
Someone once said of Linfen that if you put your washing out to dry on the line, it will be black before it is dry. The city’s main problem is that it has been developed into a center for coal mining, and not enough has been done to combat the effects of coal dust pollution. Ironically, until the mid 1970s, the city was famous for its agriculture and green areas, as well as its spring water. The city was given the nickname of the modern fruit and flower town in recognition of this. Some improvements have been made to the environment more recently, and whereas Linfen came top of the most polluted lists of several studies in the past, it has now dropped back somewhat.
2 Dzerzhinsk, Russia
The Russian city was the hub of the chemical production industry for over fifty years during the Soviet era. An estimated 300,000 tons of toxic waste was improperly disposed of in the course of the production of chemical weapons and other products. Levels of dioxins and other harmful substances have been discovered in the water supply, and research has proven that diseases such as cancer of the eyes, lungs and kidneys are much more common in Dzirzhinsk. Proving the harm that has been done over the years, a study in 2006 came to the conclusion that life expectancy in the city was just 47 for men and 42 for women.
1 Chernobyl, Ukraine
Following the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, a large exclusion zone became virtually uninhabitable. The worst nuclear disaster in the world at the time spread radiation across a large area of eastern Europe, with plants and vegetables in other countries even being affected. Pripyat, a city created not long prior to the disaster to service the power plant, had grown to a population of almost 50,000 by April 1986. Shortly after the meltdown, the entire city was evacuated and has remained abandoned ever since. Radiation levels in the city and surrounding areas have dropped considerably however, and it is now possible to safely visit the zone.