Share on Facebook

The Most (and the Least) Polluted Cities in the World

Tracking the levels of tiny particulates that can cause respiratory health issues, IQ Air spills the beans on the most polluted cities around the globe.

Gurgaon / Gurugram, New Delhi, India - December 13, 2018: Architecture of Cyber City (Cyberhub)Marcin Mierzejewski/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Gurugram, India

IQ Air—it develops technology to help protect people from airborne pollution—recently released its 2018 world air quality report. Gurugram took the crown as the most polluted city in the world. It’s not alone in India: Of the top 20 most polluted cities worldwide, 15 are in India. Because it is so close to the capital of New Delhi, Gurugram is developing rapidly. However, nonstop construction and an exploding population have had harsh environmental and health consequences. If everyone in India and across the world made these tiny everyday changes, it could help the environment.

Aerial View Of Clock Tower FaisalabadHanan Khaleeq/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Faisalabad, Pakistan

The first on the list not in India, nearby Faisalabad gets the nod for IQ Air’s third most polluted city. It is also the third largest city in Pakistan. A report published in the International Journal of Chemistry and Material Science cites rapid population growth, industrialization, and deforestation as key factors in Faisalabad’s developing pollution problem.

China Desert Xinjiang - Jun 2008Iris Ying/EPA/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Hotan, China

The only other non-Indian city to make the top 10, the western China city of Hotan takes eighth place on IQ Air’s list. In this region of Xinjiang, coal burning and production is extremely high. Not only that, but the natural elements aren’t kind to residents, either. Along with the usual harms from development and population growth, Hotan—according to a report from the China Environmental Health Project—experiences sand-filled wind more than 300 days out of the year. These countries might want to read about how Rwanda became one of the cleanest nations on Earth.

Dhaka skyline from a bird's eye viewLumenite/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Dhaka, Bangladesh

While India has the greatest number of polluted cities in the world, its neighbor Bangladesh manages to have incredibly high levels despite a much smaller population. According to IQ Air, “…weighted by population, Bangladesh emerges as the most polluted country on average.” The capital city of Dhaka takes second place only to Delhi, India on the world capital cities pollution ranking.

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - November , 2017: view of the World Trade Center and other high rise buildings in Manama on Nov 19, 2017 in Manama, BahrainP.V.R.Murty/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Manama, Bahrain

As a country, the island of Bahrain takes fifth place on IQ Air’s most polluted countries list. The city of Manama, in particular, is named the worst of all the cities in this country. Because of the Kingdom’s coastal environment, marine pollution is just as much a factor as air pollution is in the lives of the people there. Tiny everyday changes can cut back on air pollution.

Blue Mosque in Kabul - AfghanistanMarkus Stappen/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Kabul, Afghanistan

Here’s a jarring statistic about Kabul from Al Jazeera: The city’s air pollution has claimed more lives than the current war. The amount of old vehicles emitting hazardous pollutants on the streets is more than the city can handle; many children end up in the hospital with breathing conditions because of the intense pollution in Kabul.

The panoramic view of the entire city of Ulaanbaatar, mongoliatoiletroom/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar houses half of the country’s population, and every person there is at serious risk from air pollution, reports UNICEF. The poor air quality is hardest on pregnant women and infants, and the charity has singled out the country as a child health crisis—the incidence of premature birth, stillbirth, pneumonia, and bronchitis is skyrocketing.

Kuwait Tower City Skyline glowing at night, taken in Kuwait City, Kuwait on the 27th of December 2018Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock

Most polluted: Kuwait City, Kuwait

The intense air pollution in Kuwait has led not only to a rise in respiratory problems but a greater abundance of cancer-causing particles, reports the Kuwait Times. This source also puts some of the blame on the local government for failing to acknowledge and address environmental issues.

Diamond Head Waikiki HonoluluFiona Lin/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Honolulu, Hawaii

On a more positive note, the American Lung Association states that Hawaii—especially Honolulu—has some of the cleanest air in the United States and anywhere else. The environmental website Mother Nature News points to Hawaii’s tradewinds: These year-round breezes carry any air particulates out to sea. Possibly related: Hawaii also happens to be one of the states with the fewest heart attacks per year. Guidebooks show pristine sands and clear waters, but this is what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like.

Scenery of old town of Zurich, Switzerland from University hill.Boris-B/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Zurich, Switzerland

The city of Zurich is another clean city that has implemented strict waste management techniques; the populace also prefers cycling, trains, buses, and subways to driving. The city actually provides its residents with an app that helps them track and manage their garbage and recycling, and it helps keep them informed on best practices. Learn how you can recycle and upcycle in your daily life.

Adelaide, Australia - September 11, 2016: Adelaide city centre viewed from the north side of Torrens river in Elder Park on a bright dayamophoto_au/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Adelaide, Australia

The entire country of Australia places just below Iceland and Finland on IQ Air’s least polluted list. Adelaide was also singled out by Mercer Global Financial as one of the world’s cleanest cities. The city garners even more accolades for being a great place to inhabit: Adelaide ranks among the world’s most livable cities. We could all learn a thing or two from Australians about reducing our carbon footprint.

Skyscrapers in downtown Calgary, CanadaAndrew Zarivny/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Calgary, Canada

Calgary is one of the cleanest cities in the world largely because of its approach to waste and waste management. Their “Too Good To Waste” campaign, for example, has reduced the amount of garbage going to landfills: Through sorting out compost and recyclables, the city has cut landfill waste in half, officials say.

Helsinki cityscape with Helsinki Cathedral, Market Square (Kauppatori), FinlandSubodh Agnihotri/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Helsinki, Finland

The IQ Air report lists the capital of Finland as one of the least polluted capital cities in the world. One reason, reports the Telegraph, is that the residents’ standard mode of transportation is public transportation and bicycles: The city has roughly 2,400 miles worth of cycle lanes.

Scenery view of Reykjavik the capital city of Iceland in late winter season.Boyloso/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Reykjavík, Iceland

Architectural Digest names Rekyjavík one of the top five cleanest international cities you need to visit. Because of the city’s dedication to alternative energy sources, residents and travelers can enjoy pristine natural resources and living conditions. Geothermal energy—a clean source—accounts for approximately 90 percent of the city’s heating and electricity power. Take a page out of their book and check out these ways to slash your energy bills.

Hamburg townhall and Alster river at springS.Borisov/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Hamburg, Germany

Germany is a world leader in green energy concepts, and Hamburg is a shining example of how well their strategies are working out. The country’s campaign to reduce harmful emissions is bold, with a goal of 40 percent emission reduction by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Wellington Cable Car, New ZealandMilosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

Least polluted: Wellington, New Zealand

IQ Air reports that Wellington has the cleanest air of all the world capitals on its list. “The relatively small population and geographic isolation lend the New Zealand capital naturally fresher, cleaner air,” reports the website Mother Nature Network. Additionally, the locals take pride in maintaining the city’s cleanliness. If you’re looking for the healthiest people in the world, though, look no further than Spain.

Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest's Culture, Advice, Travel and Pets beats. She is also a music journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Loudwire, Revolver, Kerrang! and more. Markarian is the author of the book, 'From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society', which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.