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An Indian youth in a march to raise awareness about air pollution. An Indian youth in a march to raise awareness about air pollution.  (AFP or licensors)

India’s alarming air pollution crisis

According to the 2018 World Air Quality Report, 22 of the world’s 30 worst cities with air pollution are in India.

By Robin Gomes

India has an alarming air pollution problem with 22 of the world’s 30 worst cities in the country, according to a new study.

India’s heavy burden

The 2018 World Air Quality Report by Greenpeace and AirVisual Analysis, released on March 5, showed Delhi continuing to rank first among the world’s 62 worst capitals.  Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Kabul (Afghanistan) are among other Asian capitals with polluted air.

The most polluted city in the world is Gurugram (formerly Gurgaon) in India’s Haryana state, a technological hub in the southwest of Delhi, the Indian capital.  

It is followed by Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh state and Faisalabad (in Pakistan).  Delhi ranks 11th among the worst cities.

Among other Indian cities are Faridabad, Bhiwadi, Noida, Patna, Lucknow, Jodhpur, Muzaffarpur, Varanasi, Moradabad, Agra, Gaya and Jind.

The Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, is the most polluted European city.  London is the 48th most polluted capital.

The report is accompanied by AirVisual’s online interactive display map of the world's most polluted cities, allowing further exploration of air quality across different regions and sub-regions in 2018.

7 million deaths a year

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May revealed that 7 million people die each year because of exposure to ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.  The World Bank calculated the cost to the world economy in lost labour as $225bn.

The WHO study showed that India was home to the world’s most polluted cities.  The worst offenders were Kanpur, followed by Faridabad, Varanasi and Gaya.             

The Greenpeace and AirVisual Analysis report is based on 2018 air quality data from public monitoring sources, such as government monitoring networks, supplemented with validated data from outdoor IQAir AirVisual monitors operated by private individuals and organizations.

At a country level, weighted by population, the report showed Bangladesh as the most polluted country on average, closely followed by Pakistan and India, with Middle Eastern countries, Afghanistan and Mongolia also within the top 10.


Out of the over 3000 cities included in the report, 64% exceeded the WHO’s annual exposure guideline for fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5.

PM2.5 measures up to 2.5 microns in size and has a range of chemical makeups and sources.  It is widely regarded as the pollutant with the most health impact of all commonly measured air pollutants.  PM2.5 is able to penetrate deep into the human respiratory system and from there to the entire body, causing a wide range of short- and long-term health effects.

100% of measured cities within the Middle East and Africa exceeded the WHO threshold, while 99% of cities in South Asia, 95% of cities in Southeast Asia, and 89% of cities in East Asia also exceed this target.  Numerous areas lacking up-to-date air quality information are not included in the report.  Hence the total number of cities exceeding the WHO PM2.5 threshold is expected to be higher.

The city ranking of the 2018 World Air Quality Report shows Asian locations dominating the highest 100 average PM2.5 levels during 2018, with cities in India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh occupying the top 50 cities. Numerous cities within the Middle East region also rank highly, with Kuwait City, Dubai and Manama all exceeding the WHO guideline by over 500%. 


David Boyd, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment told the Human Rights Council in Geneva this week that air pollution is a “silent, sometimes invisible, prolific killer” which affects women and girls more than men.

This is despite the fact that the right to a healthy environment is legally recognized by 155 States, Boyd said.

“Every hour, 800 people are dying, many after years of suffering, from cancer, respiratory illnesses or heart disease directly caused by breathing polluted air,” he said, stressing that these deaths are preventable.

“Air pollutants are everywhere, largely caused by burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and heating, as well as from industrial activities, poor waste management and agricultural practices,” he said.

07 March 2019, 11:46