Which cities in the world would you guess have the worst air pollution? Beijing? Delhi? Los Angeles?

In researching this article, I was surprised at what I found. And, by the way, Los Angeles wasn’t even close (this might seem very obvious to some, but as an American, Los Angeles is often used as a point of reference in talking about pollution thanks to all those cars).

So here’s what I learned. As it turns out, it’s not the world’s largest capitals that have topped the list, but rather lesser known cities that have heavy industry in or nearby them.

Have a look, here are the top ten according to a World Health Organization study in 2013:

1. Ahwaz, Iran

Image: urbanattitude.ft

2. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Image: randomstory

3. Sanandaj, Iran

Image: wikipedia commons

4. Ludhiana, India

Image: wikipedia commons

5. Quetta, Pakistan

Image: wikipedia commons

6. Kermanshah, Iran

Image: rezavoody

7. Peshawar, Pakistan

Image: wikipedia commons

8. Gaborone, Botswana

Image: wikipedia commons

9. Yasouj, Iran

Image: wikipedia commons

10. Kanpur, India

Flickr: symmetry_mind

Does this really matter? You betcha.

The WHO reports that “air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”

If you live somewhere with clean air, this might be hard to believe, but people who have lived in an area plagued by unclean air can attest to just how serious it actually is.

My colleague Tom Blake describes arriving in Beijing, and being able actually move the smog in front of his face with his hand. Yuk. And we already learned that Beijing isn’t even that bad off in comparison to some of these other cities!

If that’s not frightening enough, consider this: the World Health Organization found that air pollution is responsible for approximately 3.7 million deaths a year (according to a 2012 study). These deaths are caused by mostly cardiovascular diseases, like ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute lower respiratory infections in children. As such, air pollution is recognized as the world’s worst environmental carcinogen, and it’s considered more dangerous than second-hand smoke.

A woman makes her way from a temple in Anyang City, China. In 2013, Anyang had the second worst air pollution in all of Henan Province. | Flickr: V.T. Polywoda

Now, here’s the thing- taking inspiration from the late Martin Luther King Jr.,air pollution anywhere is a threat for people everywhere.

Slate’s John Upton explains that “nearly one third of the soot in the San Francisco Bay blew over from Asia.” In other words, air pollution travels, so it’s in all of our best interests to clean things up.

“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry” says WHO’s Dr. Carlos Dora. “In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains.”

Ya hear that?! As a global community we just need to commit ourselves to more sustainable practices. Implementing regulations will help too. In the United States, for instance, regulations like the Clean Air Act have helped cities like Los Angeles completely transform their air quality, proving that we can turn things around, if we set our minds to it.

Regardless of where we’re born, we all deserve the right to walk outside without fearing that the very air we need to survive will hurt us. It’s on us to make this happen, and this is the year to do it.

In September, the UN will agree on a new global development to-do list (the Sustainable Development Goals, or "SDGs") that will pick up where the last to-do list from 2000 left off (known as the Millennium Development Goals or "MDGs"). Then, in December, the UN Climate Change Conference will set new climate action targets, which are vital in combating climate change.

That’s where Action/2015 comes in. Action/2015 is a citizen’s movement of hundreds of organizations around the world demanding truly ambitious agreements on poverty, inequality and climate change in 2015. Global Citizen has joined the movement and we want you to be a part of it. Sign up to get involved!

Click for more Action/2015 content


Defeat Poverty

The cities with the worst air pollution aren't the ones you would think

By Christina Nuñez