The Most Polluted Places on Earth

Report raises alarm about global pollution and points to solutions

Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Yuri Kozyrev/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to a 2013 report by Pure Earth, a nonprofit organization that tackles pollution in communities worldwide, more than 200 million people living around toxic environments are at serious risk for cancer, respiratory diseases, and premature death. The "Top Ten Toxic Threats" report, an update from two previous studies, declares toxic pollution to be a global public health threat as deadly as certain well-publicized scourges, like malaria and tuberculosis.

To increase awareness about how deadly toxic pollution is, Pure Earth, formerly known as the Blacksmith Institute, collaborated with Green Cross Switzerland to assess risk at more than 2,000 sites across 49 countries in the years since their last report was published in 2007. The 2013 report showcases ten areas with the greatest potential for harm as a result of toxic pollution. These are the world's most polluted places, says Pure Earth, "a snapshot of some of the worst pollution problems in the world."

Top 10 Worst Polluted Places

Chernobyl in Ukraine, site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents to date, is the best-known place on the list. Decades after the disaster, a stretch of land around the plant spanning 19 miles is still barely populated by people. Even so, lingering toxicity in the area has been linked to thyroid cancer, an increased risk of leukemia, and cardiovascular diseases.

The other places on the list are unknown to most people, but they host environmental problems ranging from lead contamination to radiation that threaten the lives of 200 million people. In some cities, like Dzerzhinsk in Russia, the life expectancy hovers around 47 for women and 42 for men.

“Living in a town with serious pollution is like living under a death sentence,” says Pure Earth's initial 2006 report. "If the damage does not come from immediate poisoning, then cancers, lung infections and mental retardation are likely outcomes."

The Worst Polluted Sites Serve as Examples of Widespread Problems

Russia and Indonesia lead the list of eight nations in the updated 2013 list, with two of the 10 worst polluted sites in each country. Other sites were chosen because they are examples of problems found in many places around the world. For example, Kalimantan, Indonesia has severe mercury contamination from gold mining and Agbogbloshie in Ghana suffers from e-waste processing pollution.

The Top 10 Worst Polluted Places

The Top 10 worst polluted places in the world based on the 2013 report are:

  1. Agbogbloshie, Ghana
  2. Chernobyl, Ukraine
  3. Citarum River, Indonesia
  4. Dzerzhinsk, Russia
  5. Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
  6. Kabwe, Zambia
  7. Kalimantan, Indonesia
  8. Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina
  9. Niger River Delta, Nigeria
  10. Norilsk, Russia

Choosing the Top 10 Worst Polluted Places

The Top 10 worst polluted places in the 2013 report were selected from a batch of over 3,000 sites across 49 countries. In collaboration with local authorities and other groups, the team behind the "The Worlds Worst 2013: The Top Ten Toxic Threats" report chose the top spots based on the how great an impact each spot had on the health of individuals within the region. Still, the authors maintain that the sites that made the top ten cut are not the only significant sources of toxic pollution in the world. In fact, as the group wrote in their 2013 paper, these "sites are examples of similar sites around the world."

Solving Global Pollution Problems

Pure Earth is optimistic change is possible. As the groups wrote in their 2007 report, “the problems are major, but this does not mean that they are hopeless. There are decades of experience in industrial nations in cleaning up the most toxic sites as well as a handful of successful projects that are being implemented in the developing world.”

In fact, while most of the initial top ten sites from the 2006 report made it onto the 2007 report, only four of the 2007 sites made it onto the 2013 report. Furthermore, there has been at least some progress made on almost all sites from the 2007 report.

“The most important thing is to achieve some practical progress in dealing with these polluted places,” says Dave Hanrahan, chief of global operations for the Blacksmith Institute. “There is a lot of good work being done in understanding the problems and in identifying possible approaches. Our goal is to instill a sense of urgency about tackling these priority sites.”

Edited by Frederic Beaudry

View Article Sources
  1. "The Worlds Worst 2013: The Top Ten Toxic Threats." Blacksmith Institute.

  2. Williams, E D. “Chernobyl and Thyroid Cancer.” Journal of Surgical Oncology, vol. 94, iss. 8, 2006, pp. 670-7., doi:10.1002/jso.20699

  3. Zablotska, Lydia B et al. “Radiation and the Risk of Chronic Lymphocytic and Other Leukemias Among Chornobyl Cleanup Workers.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 121, iss. 1, 2013, pp. 59-65., doi:10.1289/ehp.1204996

  4. Zablotska, Lydia B. “30 Years After the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: Time for Reflection and Re-evaluation of Current Disaster Preparedness Plans.” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, vol. 93, iss. 3, 2016, pp. 407-13., doi:10.1007/s11524-016-0053-x