Pollution is not something you think about when traveling. Flight tickets, luggage, and activities are what you usually focus on. But have you considered if your destination is one of the most polluted countries in the world?
Breathing fresh, clean air is something many people take for granted, especially when on holiday. When you think of the word “pollution,” you probably think of litter lining the streets and smog blanketing once-gorgeous landscapes — it doesn’t sound like an ideal travel destination, does it?
What many travelers don’t consider is the effect of everyday activities in these regions that result in poor air quality.
As you read about the most polluted countries in the world, you’ll discover startling facts concerning air pollution in these places. Coincidentally, several of them are among the world’s most developing countries.
How the Most Polluted Countries in the World Are Determined
Table of Contents
- How the Most Polluted Countries in the World Are Determined
- 17 Most Polluted Countries in the World
- 1. Chad
- 2. Iraq
- 3. Pakistan
- 4. Bahrain
- 5. Bangladesh
- 6. Burkina Faso
- 7. Kuwait
- 8. India
- 9. Egypt
- 10. Tajikistan
- 11. United Arab Emirates
- 12. Sudan
- 13. Rwanda
- 14. Qatar
- 15. Saudi Arabia
- 16. Nepal
- 17. Uganda
- FAQs About the World’s Most Polluted Countries
- Which Country Has the Highest Pollution in the World?
- What Are the Top 10 Countries That Pollute?
- Which Country Has the Cleanest Air?
- Final Thoughts on the Most Polluted Countries in the World
According to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, most people worldwide breathe contaminated air. Even more shocking is that this reportedly shaves off about two years of global life expectancy.
And while overall pollution has decreased worldwide due to China’s “war against pollution,” air pollution remains a global health concern.
So, how are the most polluted countries in the world determined? When assessing the most polluted countries worldwide, several factors are considered. These are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM10), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels. However, for this article, the average PM2.5 concentration levels for 2022 are looked at.
“Why?” you may ask. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are particles considered more dangerous than particulate matter (PM10). Plus, data on global nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels per country are less readily available than PM2.5 data.
PM2.5 is measured in micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3), with the global health body revising the recommended PM2.5 air quality from 25µg/m3 to 15µg/m3.
17 Most Polluted Countries in the World
A quick note before we dive in: the fine particulate matter of the most polluted countries listed below is compared to the latest Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) per the World Health Organisation (WHO). As such, they are expressed as a percentage of these new outlines by the WHO.
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is precisely what you’d think they are; these are tiny particles found in the air. They’re so small that the largest of these is 30 times smaller than your hair. This matter is equal to or less than 2.5 microns in diameter.
Sources of fine particulate matter include emissions from cars, trucks, wood stoves, construction sites, and industrial facilities, to name a few.
As mentioned earlier, what makes PM2.5 more dangerous than PM10 is that they can find their way further into your respiratory system, including your lungs. Sometimes, fine particulate matter can even make its way into your bloodstream.
Exposure to PM2.5 can lead to serious health concerns, such as acute and chronic bronchitis. Sadly, long-term exposure to fine particulate matter has been linked to premature death. This is more pronounced in those with chronic heart or lung diseases. Children, on the other hand, face lower lung functioning and slower lung function growth.
Some of these countries are home to Africa’s best landmarks and stunning Asian landmarks. It’s worth noting that many of the world’s top tourist destinations have some of the worst pollution levels, with tourism possibly a huge contributor.
Continue reading to get the lowdown on the most polluted countries in the world.
Image by Canva
PM2.5 levels: 89.7 µg/m3 (598% over WHO safe standard)
Located in northern Central Africa, Chad is a country that boasts stunning landscapes and a diverse population. Despite all it has going for it, the nation grapples with the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most polluted country.
Let’s delve deeper to understand what factors contribute to the environmental challenges Chad faces. Apart from being an economy heavily dependent on its agriculture sector, the country also benefits from gains in the oil sector.
Most of Chad’s export revenue comes from exporting crude oil, which is produced by a significant amount of industrial activity. This, plus emissions from vehicles and unregulated waste burning, release PM2.5 pollutants into the air. Harsh weather conditions, like dust storms, play a role too.
Lastly, socio-economic factors, such as poverty and lack of access to clean energy sources, contribute to its ranking as the most polluted country in the world.
Next Read: Chad is also one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
Image by Esmihel Muhammad on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 80.1 µg/m3 (534% over WHO safe standard)
Did you know that Iraq is also known as the “Cradle of Civilisation?” If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Plus, there are other lesser-known facts about this Middle Eastern country. One such truth is its high levels of air pollution.
Like Chad, oil extraction and production significantly contribute to Iraq’s economy. However, pursuing this $115 billion economic activity plays a huge role in Iraq securing this undesired spot as one of the world’s most polluted countries.
The nation’s oil and gas sector releases black carbon into the air. The result? Respiratory diseases like bronchitis and pneumonia plague those exposed to air pollution. Other contributors to this environmental concern include neurotoxicants and heavy metals from the Gulf and Iraq Wars.
Emissions from older vehicles and generators also result in Iraq’s poor air quality.
Image by Aa Dil on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 70.9 µg/m3 (473% over WHO safe standard)
Pakistan’s PM2.5 levels are almost 500% of the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines. India’s neighbour has high levels of air pollution, thanks to smog brought about by immense traffic and industrialisation.
In addition, crop burning, in an attempt to clear land, pollutes the air and causes respiratory issues for locals. In fact, 20 million Pakistani adults suffer from asthma. India’s neighbor also battles socio-economic factors that contribute to poor air quality.
With a poverty rate just below 40%, Pakistan struggles with many citizens from poor backgrounds. This results in many not being able to access clean energy solutions due to a lack of disposable income.
Next Read: Find out the most dangerous roads in the world to avoid when visiting Pakistan.
Image by Satheesh Cholakkal on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 66.6 µg/m3 (444% over WHO safe standard)
Located in the Persian Gulf, the Kingdom of Bahrain is one of the smaller oil-producing countries compared to neighboring nations. That said, the country still faces air pollution related to industrial activities.
Despite expansion into financial services, such as banking and other sectors, like tourism, Bahrain has poor air quality. This is partly due to industrial pollution caused by petroleum production and refining. Over 60% of the Kingdom’s export receipts come from this economic activity.
To add to that, sandstorms, which are highly prevalent in the Gulf, sweep lots of air-particle pollutants across the nation. Fertiliser manufacturing is also a culprit. Naturally, these factors contribute to low air quality.
Image by Kelly on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 65.8 µg/m3 (439% over WHO safe standard)
With economic growth and an increase in its population, Bangladesh faces similar environmental concerns as populous countries. As seen worldwide in the pursuit of opportunity, many flee to city centres, leading to rapid urbanisation and cramped living conditions.
More and more people drive vehicles, many of which are old and emit particulate matter into the air. Plus, dust from construction activities and unpaved roads majorly contribute to poor air quality.
That’s not all. Other causes of air pollution include industrial activities (e.g., mining and manufacturing) and biomass burning (i.e., burning wood for cooking and heating). Lastly, brick kilns, an outdated form of brick-making, contribute significantly to air pollution in Bangladesh.
6. Burkina Faso
Image by YODA Adaman on Unsplash
PM2.5 levels: 63 µg/m3 (420% over WHO safe standard)
Burkina Faso, a West African country, is one of the most polluted countries in Africa and the world, and you’ll soon discover its harrowing effects.
Most of Burkina Faso’s energy comes from biomass burning. This involves using firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating. While this serves a practical purpose, this outdated form of energy production massively contributes to poor air quality in the country.
Old vehicles, often in poor condition and using dirty fuels, also release air pollutants and harmful emissions.
The harrowing effect of the above is that lower respiratory infections (e.g. pneumonia and bronchitis) make up the leading cause of death in the country. It’s been reported that air pollution is one of the top three factors contributing to this sad outcome.
Image by Shahbaz Hussain on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 55.8 µg/m3 (372% over WHO safe standard)
Kuwait is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and like neighbouring countries, it owes most of its prosperity to oil. The Middle Eastern nation controls about 6% of the world’s oil reserves. In addition, over 50% of its GDP is from oil and gas.
The petroleum-based economy battles poor air quality caused by the burning of fossil fuels in the oil industry. Another contributor to air pollution is vehicle emissions.
Due to its geographical location, Kuwait also experiences dust storms. This natural phenomenon lifts tons of sand and dust into the air, resulting in people breathing in particulate matter.
PM2.5 levels: 53.3 µg/m3 (356% over WHO safe standard)
Dust, dirty fuels, biomass and waste burning are some of the major contributors to this vibrant nation’s air pollution.
Approximately 100 million Indian households use homemade fuel made of dried animal dung, wood, and hay to burn in stoves. This releases smoke and particulate matter, polluting the air.
Also, the use of fuel mixed with inferior ingredients to save money emits air pollutants. And with many taxis and auto-rickshaws using adulterated fuel, this exacerbates the problem.
Traffic congestion and dust swept into big cities, like New Dehli, during the dry season also account for India’s poor air quality.
It’s been reported that PM2.5 air pollution shortens life expectancy in India by about five years.
Next Read: Find out where the Taj Mahal ranks on my list of the most famous landmarks in the world.
PM2.5 levels: 46.5 µg/m3 (310% over WHO safe standard)
Egypt earned its spot among the most polluted countries in the world thanks to waste burning, transportation, and industrial activities.
Power stations in the North African nation use coal to provide energy, leading to large emissions. Compounding this concern is the use of diesel generators as an alternative source of energy. These generators are suspected to contain cancer-causing substances and nitrogen oxide.
Other contributors include open waste burning of wood, rubber, and plastics, which release smoke and pollutants into the air. Road transportation is reported to contribute 33%, a major percentage, to PM2.5 air pollution.
Image by EJ Wolfson on Unsplash
PM2.5 levels: 46 µg/m3 (307% over WHO safe standard)
This lesser-known country in Central Asia has high air pollution, which is mainly caused by industrial and mining activities.
While most of Tajikistan’s electricity is produced by hydropower, the nation still relies on burning fossil fuels. It may sound counterintuitive, but the country does this because it regularly experiences power outages. Naturally, the use of coal (a reported 6,000 tonnes daily) releases lots of pollutants and particulate matter into the atmosphere, resulting in poor air quality.
Another contributor to pollution is mining, particularly of aluminum.
The country’s top export is aluminum, with the mining thereof releasing mercury into the air. It’s reported that breathing in the chemical element can cause damage to one’s nervous system.
11. United Arab Emirates
PM2.5 levels: 45.9 µg/m3 (306% over WHO safe standard)
Coming in hot in eleventh place is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Like fellow Middle Eastern countries, the wealthy nation faces similar causes of air pollution.
Dust, industrial activities, and fuel combustion all contribute to the UAE’s poor air quality. Construction sites and dust storms originating from Kuwait or Iraq lead to lots of PM2.5 released into the air.
The oil-rich nation is one of the world’s top oil producers. Its extraction and refining of oil releases toxic pollutants, such as organic carbon (OC) and carbon monoxide (CO), into the atmosphere.
Other causes include the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Lastly, large vehicles such as trucks and buses run on diesel, which further pollute the air.
Image by Muneeb Yassir on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 44.6 µg/m3 (298% over WHO safe standard)
Sudan is known for its rich history and where the Blue and White Nile meet. Unsurprisingly, its history mentioned earlier attracts people from all over the world to marvel at its ancient pyramids and the Red Sea Coast.
What many tourists probably don’t consider is that Sudan has high air pollution levels. The growing tourist destination’s GDP relies heavily on agriculture and oil production. Additionally, industrial emissions from extracting oil and gas pollute the air.
Due to its arid climate, Sudan also experiences dust storms. This and the factors outlined above can lead to severe health problems, including respiratory diseases and even cardiovascular issues.
Image by Murenzi Emery on Unsplash
PM2.5 levels: 44 µg/m3 (294% over WHO safe standard)
Thanks to its breathtaking scenery, Rwanda is also known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Sadly, its stunning landscapes and gorilla treks aren’t the only things to take one’s breath away.
Factors such as vehicle emissions in road traffic and biomass burning, mainly of wood, release particulate matter into the air. And with deforestation, fewer trees can intercept particulate matter, resulting in poor air quality in the region.
To add to this, industrial activities from manufacturing also release PM2.5 into the nation’s skies. Effects of Rwanda’s air pollution include increased hospitalisations and early death from respiratory diseases. It’s reported that respiratory illnesses were Rwanda’s main cause of death in 2019.
Image by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 42.5 µg/m3 (284% over WHO safe standard)
The Middle Eastern country of Qatar enjoys an enviable position as one of the richest countries in the world. However, its position as one of the most polluted likely doesn’t turn any nation green with envy.
With an economy bolstered by its vast oil and gas reserves, it’s no wonder Qatar’s oil production contributes heavily to air pollution. That said, the use of natural gas to produce energy helps lower the nation’s pollution, with fewer emissions of air pollutants.
However, construction activities, like those that created the renowned Doha skyline, contribute to poor air quality in Qatar. Additionally, vehicle traffic emissions and the burning of agricultural waste result in the release of particulate matter.
15. Saudi Arabia
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PM2.5 levels: 41.5 µg/m3 (277% over WHO safe standard)
Famous for its oil wealth and historical attractions like Petra, Saudi Arabia is a nation that depends on petroleum exports.
As one of the world’s largest net exporters of crude oil, Saudi Arabia experiences air pollution caused by its oil production and refining activities. Like other Middle Eastern countries in the region, the nation battles naturally occurring dust storms, which release particulate matter into the air. Construction activities do the same.
Emissions from vehicles are reported to contribute almost 50% of Saudi Arabia’s hydrocarbon transmissions. The result of the above is respiratory health problems caused by exposure to air pollutants.
Image by Volker Meyer on Pexels
PM2.5 levels: 40.1 µg/m3 (268% over WHO safe standard)
Nepal is renowned for its tourism industry and breathtaking Himalayan peaks. Air pollution in the country is caused by factors such as emissions from vehicles in congested traffic, the use of brick kilns, as is the case in neighbouring India, and finally, indoor cooking.
The latter involves burning solid fuels and wood, resulting in particulate matter released into the air. The construction and “baking” of bricks in these kilns also contribute to air pollution. The combination of all three activities results in poor air quality in Nepal, as well as respiratory ailments and early death.
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PM2.5 levels: 39.6 µg/m3 (264% over WHO safe standard)
Last on this list is the agriculture-driven economy of Uganda. The African nation attracts tourists with its Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and gorilla trekking.
Major contributors to air pollution here are biomass burning, industrial activities, and emissions from vehicles. Biomass burning involves combusting wood and charcoal for cooking and heating purposes. These activities release particulate matter into the air, negatively affecting those who inhale it indoors.
While Uganda is not characterised by an arid landscape like some countries on this list, the wind sweeping dust and soil from untarred roads into the air also results in poor air quality.
You might enjoy reading my article on the most polluted cities in Europe.
FAQs About the World’s Most Polluted Countries
Have more questions? Below, you’ll find answers to your most pressing questions regarding pollution levels across the world.
Which Country Has the Highest Pollution in the World?
As you’ve seen on this list, Chad is reported as the country with the highest pollution in the world. The Central African nation has the worst air quality, with high levels of air pollutants such as NO2, PM2.5, and PM10.
What Are the Top 10 Countries That Pollute?
Which Country Has the Cleanest Air?
According to Airly, an air quality monitoring company, the cleanest air in the world can be found in Switzerland’s Zurich. Other countries contending for this spot include Iceland and Australia.
Final Thoughts on the Most Polluted Countries in the World
There you go. You’ve gotten a glimpse into the environmental concerns faced by the most polluted countries in the world. It’s clear that a common thread runs throughout the nations on this list. Poverty, adverse weather conditions, and industrial activities are some recurring themes relating to pollution.
By now, you’ve come away with a deeper understanding of the air quality levels when visiting any of these countries. Being forewarned is being forearmed, and having this knowledge will allow you to breathe easier, so to speak, as an informed traveller.
Visiting a particular metropolis and want to know if it’s one of the most polluted cities in the world? It’s always a good idea to learn more so you can stay safe during your travels.
I covered all of the costs involved in writing this article on the world’s most polluted countries. This article may contain affiliate links. That means if you click through on some of the links and end up making a purchase I may receive a small commission.