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Which Are the Most Polluted Cities in the World?

If you have respiratory problems or don’t want to foul your lungs too much when you travel, you may want to avoid India, the Middle East, and China. They are home to the most polluted cities in the world.

most polluted cities in the world, including Delhi

This will probably not surprise anyone who has been to the countries listed below, but the air in these cities is really unhealthy. The list is getting more diverse than it was 10 years ago, however. China has made some effort in cleaning up the dirtiest factories there, while other countries—especially oil-producing ones—have gotten worse. Air pollution can give a higher rate of certain cancers. For example, there is also environmental asbestos exposure in daily living settings that are from asbestos mines or factories that may affect your lungs and can lead you to have stages of mesothelioma.

You’ll find two lists below compiled from the World Health Organization database. The first is for particles more than 10 microns, the second for particles more than 2.5 microns. Those are simply measures of the size of the crap you’re breathing in, generally coming from different sources—dust and soot vs. car exhaust, for instance. These aren’t the only ways of measuring pollution of course, so in other studies you may see different cities show up. In every one I’ve looked at though, China and India have the greatest concentration, though in all fairness they do have highly populated cities as well, densely packed.

most polluted cities in the world map

As you can see from that big-picture map above from the WHO, Mongolia, China, India, and parts of the Middle East are the worst places to be, along with a chunk of West Africa. Keep in mind that this list is measuring particles in the air though, so dusty countries without a lot of vegetation are at a natural disadvantage. That disadvantage can clearly be overcome, however, if you’re trying hard enough: just look at Australia. 

This first list goes to 31, an odd number, because I wanted to show something notable: no African city appears on this list of the most polluted cities in the world until #31 except for Cairo in the north. While some African countries appear on that list above in the overall scores, on a global comparison scale they get beat out by ultra-polluted Asia. 

India        Delhi
India        Ludhiana
Pakistan    Islamabad
India        Kanpur
India        Khanna
Kuwait    Al-Shuwaikh
India        Firozabad
India        Lucknow
Iraq        Baghdad
India        Amritsar
India        Gobindgarh
China        Jinan
Pakistan    Lahore
India        Agra
China        Xingtai
Bangladesh    Narayangonj
China        Baoding
India        Jodhpur
China        Xi’an
India        Dehradun
India        Jaipur
India        Howrah
India        Faridabad
Egypt        Greater Cairo
Kuwait    Ali Subah Al-Salem
Bahrain    Hidd
India        Dhanbad
Saudi Arabia    Makkah
India        Bhopal
China        Zhengzhou
Uganda    Kampala

most polluted countries China

When I first visited India in the mid-1990s, the government announced a grand plan to close dirty factories around Agra and Jaipur to slow the deterioration of the famous palaces and Taj Mahal. So much for that. Two decades later, those two cities are some of the most polluted in the world.

Here’s the second list, which is a sorting of the most polluted on the “larger than 2.5 microns” scale:

Iran             Zabol
India            Gwalior
India            Allahabad
Saudi Arabia    Riyadh
Saudi Arabia    Al Jubail
India            Patna
India            Raipur
Cameroon        Bamenda
China            Xingtai
China            Baoding
India            Delhi
India            Ludhiana
Saudi Arabia    Dammam
China            Shijiazhuang
India            Kanpur
India            Khanna
India            Firozabad
India            Lucknow
China            Handan
Pakistan        Peshawar
India            Amritsar
India            Gobindgarh
Pakistan        Rawalpindi
China            Hengshui
Bangladesh        Narayangonj
Iran             Boshehr
India            Agra
Uganda        Kampala
China            Tangshan
India            Jodhpur
India            Dehradun
India            Ahmedabad
India            Jaipur

Agra India most polluted

I went down to 33 on that list to show that Jaipur again makes the list. I’m not trying to pick on India, even though they do deserve the most scorn on their lack of environmental efforts. But I wanted to highlight the areas where tourists are likely to visit. This list is probably not much of a worry if you’re avoiding Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia anyway. If you’re planning a grand tour of India though that hits the most common triangle—Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra—you might want to bring some kind of mask if you have respiratory issues.

You can see more of the data at the WHO site if you want to keep scrolling down the list. It’s clear when you do that China and India have some serious pollution problems. Before you get to the first city in Europe, in Bosnia, you have to go through 100+ cities from just those two countries. For comparison, on that 2.5 list polluted Kathmandu doesn’t show up until 260 and Lima, Peru doesn’t appear until 280.

Thanks to regulations from the EPA and similar organizations in Canada and Europe, those regions are like a breath of fresh air in comparison. The air in Delhi is 8 times more polluted than that in Paris. The air in Riyadh is 10 times more polluted than the air in Barcelona. The USA city that was long the poster child for air pollution—Los Angeles—has 2003 cities ahead of it on the second list.

If you want to dive into the data on the most polluted cities, you can get it in Excel form here and sort to your lung’s content: World Health Organization databases.

Photos via Flickr Creative Commons except for World Health Organization map. Click links to see photographer credits. This post on the most polluted cities in the world was updated in December of 2022. 


Dean LaCoursierre

Monday 15th of May 2017

The world contributed to the pollution problem of China by doing business with them thus creating the factories that pollute! Greed, greed, and more greed!

Wade K.

Wednesday 17th of May 2017

The Chinese could have been smart about it from the start, and still could be. At least half their population is still impoverished so they turned a blind eye to some issues. If they're now starting to embrace new technologies that'll clean up their environment, great. But they've got a long way to go.

Wade K.

Sunday 14th of May 2017

And the problem with that is that China has already passed us as the world's largest polluter even though our economy is twice the size of their's. So? As illustrated by those lists even if the U.S. did everything perfect environment wise we will never stop the environmental catastrophe that is expected to eventually happen. These other countries will make sure of it. China has built a huge number of coal fired electric plants. Want to make a statement? Refuse to travel to these countries until they clean up their act. Considering the amount of cities in the world, to be "only" at #31 would still be mind boggling to most of us if we went there in person.

Tim Leffel

Tuesday 16th of May 2017

Yeah, but China is going to own the world solar market too the way things are going and they're way ahead of us in implementing wind power. We're getting left in the dust on clean energy, unfortunately. What has saved us has been strict environmental laws and citizen activism.