10 Most Polluted Cities In The World

Coal worker in Linfen
Coal worker in Linfen (Andi808 / Flickr)

Millions of global citizens live in areas where toxins shorten lives. Here are perhaps ten of the most polluted cities in the world. The primary pollutant in each city is noted in parentheses:

10. Sumgayit, Azerbaijan (petrochemicals)

This is another city that suffered from generations of environmental neglect in the former Soviet Union. The indiscriminate discharge of industrial pollutants into the air and water around Sumgayit reached its zenith a couple of decades ago when an estimated 120,000 tons of pollutants were released into the atmosphere every year. Mercury was one of the more dangerous compounds to find its way into the air, water, and soil around Sumgayit.

9. Tianying, China (lead)

About half of the lead produced in China comes from this area that is home to about 150,000 individuals, and the results of long-term lead pollution are staggering. For example, wheat produced in the area has been found to contain 24 times the Chinese standards for lead levels. Interestingly, China has established standards that are even more stringent than in the U.S. Unfortunately, such standards only serve to underscore the long-term plight of a city like Tianying.

8. Kabwe, Zambia (lead, cadmium)

Kabwe is a city of over a quarter million that is a testimony to the latent effect of bad mining and smelting practices of the past. No such activity even occurs here anymore, and yet children repeatedly appear with blood levels of lead 500 to 1000 percent higher than acceptable levels. Lead, especially in young children, can retard mental development.

In 1902, this area was a British colony called Northern Rhodesia. Lead was discovered here is massive amounts, and it was extracted with little regard for the effect on the locals. For decades the mining and smelting continued. Today, the legacy is highly elevated levels of lead and cadmium in the soil.

7. Mexico City, Mexico (smog)

If urban planners had full control, they’d never plant one of the world’s highest concentrations of humanity in the middle of an ancient volcanic crater. Air is trapped in such a natural bowl, and at times intense smog can result. Of course, Mexico City is one of the world’s most populous cities, and it sits in the concave depression left by an ancient volcano.

Especially when temperature inversions afflict the area, the pollutants can be trapped in the city for long periods. In spite of decades of concentrated efforts to relieve the problem, Mexico City can still be one of the most polluted cities in the world at times.

6. Dzerzhinsk, Russia (neurotoxins)

This city of about 300,000 lives and dies with the legacy of the Cold War era, and Stalin’s regime prior to that. For decades, the Soviets dumped chemical wastes in this area. In 2003, more than 2.5 times as many people were dying here than were being born here.

City water in some areas has been found to contain phenols and dioxins at 17 million times safe limits. Even traces of sarin and VX nerve gas have appeared in this city that the Guiness Book of World Records named the most chemically polluted anywhere. Strictly in terms of chemical pollution, it is indeed the most polluted city in the world.

5. Chernobyl, Ukraine (radioactivity)

Should a city that was rendered uninhabitable by pollution make it onto a list of the most polluted cities in the world? Yes, if for no other reason than to remind us of the ultimate consequences of incompetence in controlling toxic substances. Chernobyl was still a city in the U.S.S.R. on April 26, 1986, when the worst nuclear disaster in human history occurred there. Today, miles of countryside still remain uninhabitable, and high concentrations of cancers have plagued those living across a broad swath of the surrounding Ukrainian landscape.

4. La Oroya, Peru (lead)

Latin America is certainly not immune from appearances on lists of the most polluted cities in the world. Again, the culprit is often poorly regulated mining of heavy metals. This is the case in La Oroya, where the mining, and subsequent smelting of lead, copper, and zinc has produced all-too-real consequences for the children of the region. The average level of lead in the blood of area citizens is triple the limit established by the World Health Organization.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, and in La Oroya, over 99 out of 100 children have lead levels in their blood that exceed acceptable levels. The smelter in the region has been spewing lead and other contaminants into the air since 1922. The smelter, Doe Run Peru, is owned by a company based right in Missouri.

3. Norilisk, Russia (nickel)

This city of over 130,000 is also involved in mining and smelting a metal coveted for its ability to strengthen steel alloys. Nickel is the metal, and the lack of proper controls on the smelters around Norilisk result in a wide range of toxins being emitted into the air. In addition to heavy metals like lead, cobalt, selenium, copper, and nickel, poisonous gases like sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide cause respiratory illnesses to an alarming degree.

2. Sukinda, India (chromium)

Stainless steel is preferred the world over in food processing and other applications where durability and cleanliness is vital. Unfortunately, the chromium that is required in the production of stainless steel is produced in some of the most toxic environments on earth.

In Sukinda, India one of the largest open chromite ore mines on earth has polluted the ground water to dramatic levels. In the U.S., the movie “Erin Brockovich” acquainted moviegoers with the term “hexavalent chromium.” In the movie, children suffered from myriad maladies, some deadly. In Sukinda, an estimated 60 percent of the drinking water has double the amount of this toxic heavy metal than international standards suggest is safe. One health organization in India estimates that, in unregulated mining areas like Sukinda, over four-fifths of all deaths are chromite-caused. The population in Sukinda alone is in excess of 2.5 million.

1. Linfen, China (coal)

There’s a distinct lack of clothing drying out on clothes lines in Linfin, China. In many other places on the planet, this is a great way to make clothes smell good. Here, they’d turn black with soot. Linfin is in the heart of the coal belt in Shanxi province. Sadly, this city is home to over three million inhabitants who breathe some of the most smog-laden air anywhere.

Linfin is the ultimate urban statement on unbridled industrial growth over decades without the right environmental controls in place. Coal burns here without the scrubbers so necessary to cleanse emissions of particulates. Automobile emissions and other industrial pollutants add to the toxic airborne brew of grime in what Time magazine considered to be the world’s most polluted city.