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In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) released information on the most air-polluted cities in the world. Most of these are situated in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent with levels, in some cases, almost 10 times the recommended maximum “safe limit” set by them for air pollution. 

Using this data, we decided it might be interesting to create the following list of the most air-polluted cities in the world. This list is in increasing order from lowest to highest, with regards to recorded (or corrected) μg/m3 of 2.5 particulate matter (PM). 

The term particulate matter 2.5, refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one-half microns or less in width. Particles in this size range are able to travel deep into the respiratory tract to reach the lungs. Scientific studies have linked increases in PM 2.5 exposure with an increased risk of serious respiratory and cardiovascular illness.

However, it is important to note that some of this data is quite old. For more up-to-date daily, and monthly, averages, you can check out sites like IQAir, too.

Please note that these values are based on the US Air Quality Index (AQI) and are not absolute PM 2.5 recordings. For absolute PM 2.5 recordings, consult the 2019 Air Quality Report, produced by IQAir for most of the world’s capital cities. 

Explanatory Notes on the WHO Data

The levels of air pollution from the WHO’s database come in two forms; PM 2.5 (as recorded) and PM 10. In some situations, PM 2.5 data is not available, and the WHO and PM 10 values have been converted.

PM 2.5 relates to any fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter, whereas PM 10 defines any particles that are less than 10 microns in diameter. These particles include things like organic dust, airborne bacteria, construction dust, and coal particles from power plants, etc.

Source: EPA

In high-income countries, PM 2.5 measurements tend to be widely performed. However, in many low and middle-income countries, PM 2.5 measurements are normally not readily available. However, there have been large improvements over the last few years.

These two types of measurements are significant, as they are an especially useful metric for assessing the impact of air quality on human health

For reference, the World Health Organization states that an acceptable ‘safe limit’ of 2.5 PM should not exceed 25 μg/m3 averaged over a 24 hour period, with a maximum annual mean exposure of 10 μg/m3. Exposure above this level can cause a rise in pollution-related respiratory ailments, such as lung cancer, asthma, dysentery, and diarrhea. It should be noted that individual countries may also have their own air quality standards for PM 2.5.

With that preamble out of the way, here are the most heavily polluted cities in the world according to the WHO.

Prepared to be shocked. 

25. Narayangonj, Bangladesh is one of the most polluted cities in the world

most polluted cities Narayangonj
Source: MIKParadox /Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 105.79

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Ministry of Environment and Forests, Clean Air and Sustainable Environment

Narayangonj is located in east-central Bangladesh and sits astride the banks of the Sitalakhya River at its confluence with the Dhaleswari River. This city is one of the country’s busiest ports and trade markets. 

It also has a large concentration of industry specializing in jute presses and cotton milling, metal and chemical production, and other industrial processes.

24. Hengshui, The People’s Republic of China, is another of the dirtiest cities in the world

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Hengshui’s City Hall. Source: 王云峰/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 106.67

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: The People’s Republic of China National Environmental Monitoring Center

Hengshui is located in the southeast of China’s Hebei Province. The city is home to some of China’s rapidly growing industrial sector with a number of large chemical factories feeding the province’s booming economy. 

23. Rawalpindi, Pakistan doesn’t have the cleanest air either

most polluted cities Rawalpindi
Rawalpindi railway station. Source: Rana Usman Shakoor/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 107.00

Year of recording: 2010

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Alam K, et al. Aerosol size distribution and mass concentration measurements in various cities of Pakistan, J. Environ. Monit., 2011, 13, 1944

Rawalpindi is an industrial city in Pakistan that has large numbers of steel rolling mills, leather tanning facilities, and marble factories, as well as oil refineries. These industries have all contributed to the high levels of air pollution recorded in the past.

It was the capital of Pakistan between 1959 and 1969. 

22. Mandi Gobindgarh, India is another of the world’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Gobindgarh Fort. Source: Harvinder Chandigarh/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 107.61

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Mandi Gobindgarh’s high pollution levels are likely the result of the city’s booming steel industry. The city is located in the Indian region of Punjab.

21. Be sure to wear a mask when visiting Amritsar in India

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Durgiana Temple in Amritsar. Source: Guilhem Vellut/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 108.15

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Amritsar, India is a hotspot for tourists and Sikh pilgrims who flock to the city to visit its famous Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple. It is located in Northwestern India and lies about 15.5 miles (25 km) east of the border with Pakistan.

Amritsar is one of the most important cities in Punjab and is a major commercial, cultural, and transportation center.

20. Peshawar, Pakistan ranks in the top 25th most polluted cities in the world too

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Peshawar Museum. Source: Khalid Mahmood/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 111.00

Year of recording: 2010

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Alam K, et al. Aerosol size distribution and mass concentration measurements in various cities of Pakistan, J. Environ. Monit., 2011, 13, 1944

Located in Pakistan, Peshawar was once the capital of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara. It was later a great historical center for the caravan trade with Afganistan and Central Asia.

Today it is home to many industries, from textiles to sugar mills to copper working and small arms manufacture. 

19. Handan, The People’s Republic of China doesn’t have the cleanest air either

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Fanghong/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 111.75

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: The People’s Republic of China National Environmental Monitoring Center

Handan is a city located in the southern Hebei province of China. Today one of the world’s dirtiest cities, it was first recorded in 500 BC. Between 386 and 228 BC, the city became the famed capital of the state of Shao, and was a center of trade, famed for its luxury and elegance. 

In recent years, it has undergone significant industrial growth, with the most significant industry being coking coal, petrochemicals, and machinery.

18. One of the World’s Most Air-Polluted Cities: Lucknow, India

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
ENGG College in Lucknow. Source: Salmanafaque/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 112.86

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh state in Northern India. It is situated at the junction of many roads and rail lines and contains the Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport. 

All these links make it an important site of trade and industry like food processing, manufacture, and railroad works. 

17. Firozabad, India used to be famed for its glass industry

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
India’s Uttar Pradesh district. Source: BishkekRocks/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 113.33

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Firozabad is another large city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is also known locally as the “City of Glass” or “Suhag Nagari” due to its history of glass making

The city’s air pollution is largely blamed on its burgeoning glass industry, which may also be the cause of high levels of local acid rain. 

16. Khanna in India is another of the world’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Jain Mandir in Khanna. Source: Raghbirkhanna/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 113.77

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Khanna is a city located in the Ludhiana district of Punjab in India. Its name means, roughly, “one quarter” in Punjabi, and its name comes from its formerly very small size. 

The city has one of the largest grain markets in Asia, and its history stretches back at least 500 years. 

15. Another of the most polluted cities in the world is Kanpur, India

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Klaus Nahr/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 114.91

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore) is a city in the central southwestern Uttar Pradesh state of India. When the territory was occupied by the British in 1801, Kanpur was a humble village.

It would quickly become a frontier station for the British Empire.

Kanpur is the second-most populous city in Uttar Pradesh, after Lucknow, and is noted for its leather and textile industries.

14. Shijiazhuang, The People’s Republic of China has some pretty dirty air

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Khalidshou/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 120.63

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Clean Air Asia. Primary source: National Bureau of Statistics, The People’s Republic of China; The People’s Republic of China National Environmental Monitoring Center

Shijiazhuang is the capital and largest city of China’s Hebei province. It is situated just south of the Hutuo River and at the foot of the Taihang Mountains. 

A relatively new city (officially established as an autonomous city in 1925, under the name Shijia), it became the provincial capital in 1968. The city grew massively under panned industrialization post-WW2, and the population trebled between 1948 and 1958. 

13. Dammam in Saudi Arabia is one of the most polluted cities in the Middle East

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Abhijitvarghese/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 120.86

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Official communication from Saudi Arabia

Dammam (Al-Dammām in Arabic) is the capital city of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It is a port city and a major administrative center for the country’s oil industry and is the sixth most populous city in Saudi Arabia. 

The city has two major industrial zones, housing more than 260 factories and ancillary structures, with another 160, or so, under construction. The plants manufacture a variety of consumer and industrial goods for domestic and international markets.

12. Ludhiana, India is one of India’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Sunnysingh211/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 121.94

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Ludhiana is a city and municipal corporation in the Ludhiana district in the Indian state of Punjab and is India’s largest city north of Delhi. Meaning Town of [the] Lodhi, the city was founded during the Lodhi Dynasty of India. 

Today, it is a main contributor to the Indian economy and has a booming industrial sector that has earned it the nickname of “India’s Manchester“. 

11. Delhi, India is one of the most polluted capital cities in the world

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Aerial view over New Delhi. Source: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 122.11

Year of recording: 2013

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Central Pollution Control Board India, Environmental Data Bank; Atmospheric Research 166: 223–232 (2015); U.S. Department of State, Mission Air Quality; Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Delhi is the national capital of India. The city actually consists of two components — Old Delhi (the historical city) to the north and New Delhi, the capital, to the south. New Delhi was officially declared the capital of the Union of India after the country gained independence on 15 August 1947.

According to legend, the city was named after Raja Dhilu, a king who reigned in the region in the 1st century BCE. Unsurprisingly, the city is one of India’s largest urban centers and is a hub for business and industry. 

10. Baoding, The People’s Republic of China is another very dirty city

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Vardion/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 126.00

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: The People’s Republic of China National Environmental Monitoring Center

Baoding is a city in central Hebei province in China. The area has been a place of settlement for a long time, with a history stretching back to at least the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BC.

It has a large industrial sector that fabricates machinery, auto parts, electronics, chemicals, building material, textiles, paper, and processed foods. A high-technology industrial park was also established there in 1992.

9. Another heavily polluted city is Xingtai, The People’s Republic of China

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Qiaodong, Xingtai. Source: 陈宏宇/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 128.00

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: The People’s Republic of China National Environmental Monitoring Center

Xingtai is another city in China’s Hebei province. It is one of the oldest settlements in China, with evidence of occupation as long ago as 1600 BC. Today Xingtai is a large local market and commercial center on the main train line between Beijing and Zhengzhou

Its main economy is centered around its large industrial sector, which produces large amounts of metallurgy, machines, and textiles.

8. Bamenda, Cameroon is one of Africa’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Amcaja/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 132.00

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: J. Antonel, Z. Chowdhury (2014), Atmospheric Environment 95, 344-354

Located in northwestern Cameroon, Bamenda serves as a trade and export center for the local areas’ main produce — hides, coffee, and tobacco. It has a population of around 530,000 and it is known for its relatively cool climate and scenic hilly location.

It was formed through the merger of seven villages and was a German colony between 1884 and 1916, when it became a colony administered by Great Britain and France, and Britain alone from 1919In 1961, the region joined Cameroon.

7. Raipur, India is yet another of the world’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Swami Vivekananda Airport, Raipur. Source: Ambuj.kulshresth/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 143.66

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Raipur is the capital city of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh (formerly Madhya Pradesh before 2000). The city has a large food-processing economy with rice, wheat, cotton, oilseed, and sawmills being its main industries.

Other industries include hand-loom weaving, furniture making, and the manufacture of machinery, cigarettes, aluminum, and brass and bell-metal products.

6. Patna, India has air pollution levels 6 times the WHO’s recommended minimum

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Shivamsetu/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 148.94

Year of recording: 2013

PM2.5 or PM10 details: Measured PM 2.5 data

Data source: Central Pollution Control Board India, Environmental Data Bank

Patna is the capital city of Bihar state in Northern India. It is situated around 292 miles (470 km) NW of Kolkata (Calcutta) and is one of the oldest cities in India and had a population of 2.4 million in 2020.

It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in India and is thought to have been founded in 490 BC. Its PM 2.5 air pollution level of 149 μg/m3 is six times greater than the declared ‘safe limit’ of 25 μg/m3 set by WHO. Most of this is generated from the large concentration of vehicles and industry in the city.

5. Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia is another of the most polluted cities in the Middle East

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Al Jubail from space. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 151.71

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Official communication from Saudi Arabia

Al Jubail is located in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It is home to the Middle East’s largest petrochemical company and one of the world’s largest industrial complexes, covering 392 sq mi (1,016 sq km).

4. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is another of the world’s most polluted cities

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Source: Jack Soma/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 155.51

Year of recording: 2014

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Official communication from Saudi Arabia

Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia and also its most heavily populated city. Originally an isolated town, it exploded in size beginning in the 1940s to become the modern metropolis it is today.

3. Prayagraj (Allahabad), India is the third most polluted city in the world

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Yamuna river, Allahabad. Source: Ichattopadhyaya/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 169.72

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Prayagraj, also called Prayag, and formerly Allahabad, is an Indian city located in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the north of India. The present incarnation of the city dates to around 1583 AD, and was founded by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who named it al-Ilahābād (“City of God”).

The city is home to a burgeoning glass and wire-based industry. The main industrial areas of the city are Naini and Phulpur, where many large public and private sector companies have offices and factories.

2. Gwalior, India is the 2nd dirtiest city in the world

These 25 Cities Have the Most Polluted Air on Planet
Former central press, Gwalior. Source: YashiWong/Wikimedia Commons

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 176.14

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India

Gwalior city, located in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, is the world’s second-most air-polluted city. It is a cultural, industrial, and political center and takes its name from the historic rock fortress that forms the center of the city.

The city is surrounded by three major industrial areas Sitholi, Banmore, and Malanpur

1. The world’s most polluted city is… Zabol, Iran

world most polluted cities zabol
Source: Google Maps

The city’s annual mean PM 2.5 air pollution level (μg/m3): 216.67

Year of recording: 2012

PM2.5 or PM10 details: converted from PM10

Data source: Department of Environment

Zabol is the capital city of Zabol county, in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province of Iran. It is situated close to the border with Afghanistan and is, according to the WHO, the world’s most air-polluted city.

Zabol is well known for its so-called “120-day wind,” which is a highly persistent dust storm that ravages the city during the summer. A 2017 study in the journal Preventive Medicine suggested that the harm from 30 minutes of cycling outdoors in Zabol’s polluted air would outweigh the benefits of the exercise.

What city has the world’s cleanest air?

And that is a wrap.

Since we’ve discussed the most polluted cities in the world, this leads to the obvious question: “What is the least air-polluted city on Earth?” 

Well, according to the same WHO data, that honor goes to Sinclair, Carbon County, Wyoming with an ultra-low level of 3 μg/m3. However, it is important to note that figure was recorded in 2014 (albeit by the EPA).

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