The 15 Most Deadly Countries for Air Pollution

When we think about threats to our health, common diseases and crime rates usually come to mind. But there’s something more lethal that’s literally surrounding you at all times: air pollution. Exposure to PM2.5, or fine particle pollution caused by tiny solid and liquid droplets in the air, is today's leading environmental factor of death. According to the State of Global Air 2017 report, created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project and the Health Effects Institute, PM2.5 is responsible for approximately 4.2 million deaths every year. That makes it the 5th highest death risk among factors such as smoking, diet and high blood pressure. If you’re curious to see which countries have the deadliest air, here’s the State of Global Air’s list of the 16 countries with the highest levels of fine particle pollution.

15. China, 58 micrograms per cubic meter

China’s dismal air quality is nothing new to mainstream media, with last December’s “airpolcalypse” making headlines across the globe. Everyday life stopped as people in over 24 cities across Northeast China were told not to leave their homes when a “thick grey fog engulfed the region,” the Independent reports. But despite its bad rap, the air quality in China has actually been leveling off since 1990, thanks, in part, to a transition toward clean energy.

Read more: State of Global Air 2017

14. Uganda, 60 mg/m3

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Environmental risks like air pollution are especially dangerous in developing countries, including Uganda. “Air pollution has become one of the biggest challenges faced in Uganda, especially in urban centers,” Kiggundu Tamale, M.D. tells Voa News. “In Uganda, the main cause of air pollution is transport, especially rapid motorization that is being experienced in urban areas.” Tamale also cites mining and open waste burning as significant sources of pollution.

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13. Niger, 63 mg/m3

To reach their findings,the State of Global Air authors used population weighted annual average ambient concentrations of PM2.5 from 2015. According to the authors of the report, the highest concentrations of PM2.6 were found in North Africa and the Middle east, primarily due to “high levels of windblown mineral dust.”

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12. United Arab Emirates, 64 mg/m3

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Dubai carries a reputation for being an economic powerhouse in the Middle East. So, it's no surprise that its booming industrial economy does a number on the air quality in the United Arab Emirates. According to The Economist, it emits the 8th most carbon dioxide per capita in the world. Desalination, power generation, cars and cement manufacturing also add to the pollution there. “But one of the biggest contributors of PM2.5 in the region is dust made of sand, kicked up by construction or windstorms,” The Economist writes. Although dust may seem like an annoyance at worst, John Engelbrecht of the Desert Research Institute tells the news source that most experts believe that PM2.5 is toxic regardless of it’s composition.

11. Pakistan, 65 mg/m3

Cleaning Pakistan’s Air, a 2014 report released by the World Bank, found that industrialization, urbanization and motorization all contribute to a decline in Pakistan’s air quality. Poor air quality disproportionately affects the health and productivity poor there, according to the report, especially for the 35 percent of its citizens who live in urban areas. To put Pakistan's concentration of 64 mg/m3 into perspective, the State of Global air references the World Health Organization’s 2005 air quality guidelines. At that time, WHO set the standard for the annual average PM2.5 concentration at 10 mg/m3. Countries that meet that standard include Canada, Spain, most Nordic countries, several Pacific and Caribbean island nations and the United States.

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10. Cameroon, 66 mg/m3

Not only did Cameroon rank poorly for its air quality as a country, Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region of Cameroon, was recently named the eighth most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organization. It fell behind Raipur, Patna, Allahabad and Gwalior in India, Al Jubail and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Zabol in Iran.

9. Kuwait, 67 mg/m3

Kuwait, among other small, energy-driven economies on the Persian Gulf, posts some of the highest levels of CO2 emissions per capita in the world, according to the World Bank. Despite its low industrial activity Kuwait’s dependence on fuel oil explains its place on the World Bank’s list.

8. India, 74 mg/m3

Unlike China, which appears to be on the verge of reducing air pollution, India’s air quality has seen a dramatic change for the worst. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of premature deaths due to PM2.5 in India rose by nearly 50 percent. Factors including “rapid industrialization, population growth and an aging populace in India that is more susceptible to air pollution,” contributed to over a million PM2.5 related deaths in 2015, Michael Brauer, a professor of environment and health relationships at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study, tells The New York Times.

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7. Nepal, 75 mg/m3

After North Africa and the Middle East, the second highest concentrations of PM2.5 were found in South Asia, Southeast Asia, eastern China, and Central and Western sub-Saharan Africa. The State of Global Air authors report that the high levels of fine particle pollution there are, “due to combustion, emissions from multiple sources, including household solid fuel use, coal-fired power plants, agricultural and other open burning, and industrial and transportation-related sources.”

6. Libya, 79 mg/m3

Air pollution in Africa causes more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition, The Guardian reports on a 2016 study. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, particle pollution in Africa increased by 36 percent between 1990 and 2013. Rana Roy, PhD, an author of the study, says that used vehicles from wealthier countries have recently added to existing urban pollution caused by open fires for household cooking.

5. Mauritania, 85 mg/m3

Life expectancy in Mauritania is less than 60 years. In a country that is more than 90 percent desert, air pollution is huge factor in premature death. According to a study published in Water, Soil & Air Pollution, "it is widely accepted that acute respiratory infections among children are one of the major causes of mortality in developing countries, especially Africa." To combat air pollution, the Mauritanian government submitted a climate action plan to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015. The plan will take $17 billion to execute, and includes a 22.3 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030.

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4. Bangladesh, 89 mg/m3

Along with India, Bangladesh has the highest exposure to PM2.5 among the 10 most populous countries and the European Union, and has seen the steepest increases since 2010. The World Bank’s Clean Air and Sustainable Environment Project aims to improve air quality in Bangladesh through initiatives involving transportation and brickfields, two of the country’s biggest polluters.

3. Egypt, 105 mg/m3

Residents of Cairo, Egypt take in enough pollution every day to equal smoking a pack of cigarettes, according to the Egypt Independent. Industrial plants, particularly those that burn mazut, a heavy, low-quality fuel, are a major contributor to air pollution, along with sandstorms and car emissions. To exacerbate the situation, every fall since 1999, a “black cloud” settles over Cairo, caused by agricultural fires burning outside the city, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reports.

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2. Saudi Arabia, 106 mg/m3

Saudi Arabia just missed the top spot the State of Global Air’s list, but the Eco Experts, recently named it the most toxic nation on earth. According to Business Insider, the researchers gathered data on 135 countries based on five environmental factors: energy consumption per capita, CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, air pollution levels, deaths attributable to air pollution, and renewable energy production. “Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest oil products but also has some of the world’s lowest renewable energy contributions, despite having weather conditions ideal for solar energy,” Business Insider reports.

1. Qatar, 107 mg/m3

Qatar, a small, peninsular country off the border of Saudi Arabia, has the worst fine particle pollution on earth. In 2012, PM2.5 levels exceeded recommended levels there for 159 days, or almost half the year. And while Doha, Qatar hosted the 2016 Union Cycliste Internationale Road World Championships, spending more than 105 minutes of cycling there would result in negative effects that would outweigh the positive effects of exercise. Doha News suggests that the spike in PM2.5 levels during recent years may be due to a boom in development along with desert dust particles.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you lived or traveled to any of these places? What's the air quality like in your neighborhood? What do you do to reduce air pollution? Let us know in the comments section!

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