About 80% of all cities have worse air quality than what’s considered healthy — here are the 15 with the worst air pollution

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Parents walk primary school students to school amid thick haze in Chiping county, Shandong province January 16, 2015. The National Meteorological Center of China Meteorological Administration (CMA) issued a yellow smog alert early on Wednesday, predicting that smog will persist in most parts of the country for the upcoming days, Xinhua News Agency reported.
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China Daily/Reuters

Air pollution in urban areas is getting worse.

Between 2008 and 2013, global urban air pollution levels rose by 8%.

Some 80% of all urban areas have air pollution levels above what’s considered healthy by the World Health Organization, a new report said Thursday. The rate is even more dismal for cities with more than 100,000 people in low- and middle-income countries: The report found that 98% of those areas had unhealthy air.

The most harmful pollutant to human health is called PM 2.5, particle matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that’s found in soot, smoke, and dust. PM 2.5 is especially dangerous because it can get lodged in the lungs and cause long-term health problems like asthma and chronic lung disease.

PM 2.5 starts to become a major health problem when there is more than 35.5 micrograms (µg) of PM 2.5 per cubic meter of air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But the World Health Organizations recommends keeping yearly average PM 2.5 levels three times lower than that.

The most polluted cities on Earth have anywhere between 11 and 20 times that amount – based on the new WHO data from cities that collect it – and you might be surprised which make the top 15 list this year.


15. Kanpur, India – 115 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Wikimedia Commons

Kanpur, India has 11 times the annual mean of PM 2.5 that’s considered healthy. The pollution is attributed to industrial activity in the area as well as motor vehicles.


TIE 13. Shijiazhuang, China – 121 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Residents on their bicycles and electric bikes wait for the traffic at an intersection amid heavy smog in Shijiazhuang
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Thomson Reuters

Shijiazhuang, the largest city in China’s Hebei province, owes its high air pollution to industrial activity in the area. It’s been so bad, in 2014 a man tried to sue the government over the smog in the city.


TIE 13. Dammam, Saudi Arabia – 121 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Zuhair Al-Traifi/Reuters

Dammam, a city in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, is the sixth largest city in the country. Its high air pollution stems in part from the oil industry in the area.


12. Ludhiana, India – 122 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Wikimedia Commons

Ludhiana is the first of six Indian cities to make the 15 cities with the worst air pollution. With a population of 1.6 million, the city has struggled with air pollution over the years as it has become more industrial.


11. Delhi, India – 122 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Cyclists ride amidst morning smog in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.
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AP/Manish Swarup

Although Delhi topped the list according to 2015 WHO data, this year it fell out of the top 10 in part because of a decrease in the annual mean of PM 2.5. Its high pollution level is due to motor vehicles and nearby factories.


TIE 9. Baoding, China 128 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Although China is known for its high-smog days, it only has two cities in the top 10 worst polluted in the world. Baoding’s pollution comes from nearby factories using coal-powered machines.


9. Xingtai, China 128 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Sculptures are seen amid heavy fog at a park in Xingtai.
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Reuters/China Daily

Xingtai, also at an annual mean of 128 µg/m3 of PM 2.5, is also located in China’s Hebei province. Often regarded as the city with the most air pollution in China, its high levels are due to the coal-burning factories.


8. Bamenda, Cameroon – 132 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Wikimedia Commons

Bamenda, a hilly city in northwest Cameroon, was the only African city in the top 15. The air pollution there is in part attributed to rapid urbanization that’s led to a lot of soil erosion.


7. Raipur, India – 144 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Fans reach out to Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan in Raipur.
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Amit Dave/Reuters

Raipur, a city in central India, is the fourth most polluted Indian city in terms of average PM 2.5 levels. The reason for the high pollution is coal-powered plants and aluminum and steel production.


6. Patna, India – 149 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Krishna Murari Kishan/Reuters

Patna, the second-largest city in eastern India, is a major agricultural trade center, suffers from high pollution in part because of transportation, power generation and other industries.


5. Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia – 152 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Flickr/David Brossard

Al Jubail is an industrial city on the Persian Gulf. Because of its rapid industrialization in the 1970s, it has a high amount of air pollution that’s been noted since the 1980s.


4. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – 156 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Faisal Nasser/Reuters

Riyadh, the largest city in Saudi Arabia also clocks in as its most polluted, with 15 times what a healthy annual PM 2.5 should be. The city attributes the high pollution days in part to sulfur dioxide in the air, which predominantly comes from industrial activity.


3. Allahabad, India 170 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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A boy catches fish in a dried-up pond near the banks of the Ganges river Allahabad.
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Reuters

Allahabad, a city with almost 1 million people, joins the list in the #3 spot. The city is near the Ganges river, which often dries up, releasing dust into the air.


2. Gwalior, India – 176 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Flickr/Prashant Ram

Gwalior, a historic city about 200 miles south of New Delhi, is the Indian city with the worst air pollution both in terms of PM 2.5 and 10, according to the WHO. The Times of India attributes Gwalior’s bad air pollution to coal-powered plants, cars, and inefficient energy use in buildings.


1. Zabol, Iran 217 µg/m3 of PM 2.5

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Caren Firouz/Reuters

Zabor, Iran, which has an annual mean that’s more than 20 times higher than what the WHO considers healthy, attributes some of the high air pollution to wetlands that are drying out as the reason for the dust in the air.