A lot is said about the best places to live and travel to in the world, as they remind us of the successes of our civilization. Hardly anyone, however, talks about the ones on the other end of all this progress. As some parts of the world prosper beyond anything we ever imagined, others pay the price for most of that development in the way of worsening pollution and rising toxicity levels; a problem directly affecting millions – if not hundreds of millions – around the world.
These most polluted places on Earth stand as perfect examples of the human cost of unfettered, unsustainable progress, as well as give us a glimpse into the future we’re all looking at if we don’t change our currently unsustainable systems of mass production.
10. Citarum River, Indonesia
While it’s often referred to as the most polluted river in the world, the Citarum River in Indonesia isn’t actually a river anymore. Once the third-largest river on the island of Java, it could now only be described as a giant, occasionally-flowing mass of garbage.
Fed by more than 20,000 tons of waste from around 20,000 textile factories every day, the Citarum is so dirty at places that you can’t even see the water, only plastic, industrial waste, and dead animals completely covering the surface.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Citarum is still the major source of water for about 25 million inhabitants of the island. The river’s water – containing around a 1,000 times more lead than the US standard for drinking water, according to one study – is still used for agriculture and drinking, resulting in severe, long-term health problems across the region.
9. Dzerzhinsk, Russia
When a pack of dogs in a small Russian town called Dzerzhinsk was recently found to be completely blue, the news didn’t take long to go viral. While some people were concerned about how it happened, others mostly focused on how cute it made them look.
That was likely a result of high concentration of chemicals like copper sulfate in the town, which means the dogs probably got lucky. As it happens, Dzerzhinsk may actually be the most chemically-polluted city in the world, and turning blue is hardly the worst thing that could happen if you find yourself there.
Between 1939 and 1988, Dzerzhinsk served as the center of numerous Soviet experiments in chemical warfare. Over 300,000 tons of chemical waste – including dangerous neurotoxins like sarin – was dumped in and around the town throughout the Cold War, traces of which can still be found in everything from the town’s soil to its water supply.
8. La Oroya, Peru
La Oroya is a small town in the Peruvian Andes. Under different circumstances, it could even be an idyllic tourist haven, as the region is known for its natural beauty. Thanks to a metal smelter operating in the town for almost a century, though, the reality couldn’t be more different.
Easily one of the most polluted places in the world, the smelter has almost permanently poisoned almost every part of life in this small town. According to a 1999 survey, almost 99% of all kids living here have lead levels far beyond the World Health Organization limit, and the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
While there have been many community-led efforts to raise awareness about the state of the town, the government has made little to no efforts to fix the problem. Even if the emission levels of the smelter are shut off overnight, heavy metals like lead, zinc and copper would remain in the town’s soil and water supply for centuries to come.
7. The Niger River Delta, Nigeria
While oil has definitely aided the rapid growth of our civilization in the past few centuries, its impact on the environment has been disastrous – especially in the deregulated markets of the third world.
Even if it’s impossible to calculate the full extent of our dependence on oil, its most acute consequences could be seen in the Niger River Delta in Nigeria.
Almost the entire region is marred by frequent oil spills, which eventually flow into the rivers and creeks and cause a loss of livelihood for the locals, along with the long-term effects on the diverse ecology of the region. According to government estimates, there have been almost 3,000 oil spills by Shell and Eni – two major oil companies working in the area – in the delta since 2011 and 2014, respectively. The oil companies, though, blame oil thieves for the spills, which may just be a way to escape penalties more than anything else.
6. Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan
On first look, Semipalatinsk may come across as a quiet, remote town in Kazakhstan, though it happens to be one of the most radioactive places on Earth. It was one of Soviet Empire’s largest nuclear-testing facilities; at its peak, it was home to nearly one-fourth of all nuclear tests in the world.
While the Soviets and their nuclear arsenal are now long gone, its long-term consequences linger on in towns like Semipalatinsk. The testing site, then known as Polygon, was used for an estimated 110 nuclear tests from 1949 to 1963, affecting over 1.5 million nearby residents at the time, with over 100,000 still affected by adverse health effects like deformity and cancer passed on through generations.
5. Kabwe, Zambia
Kabwe is located near what was once known as the Copperbelt in Zambia; a thriving industrial region with rich deposits of minerals like zinc and lead. After close to a century of mining and smelting close to the town, the small town is now up there with some of the most polluted places in the world.
While the emissions stopped in 1994, the entire water supply, soil and even the air of the town are still full of harmful metals like lead, cadmium, zinc and copper. On an average, the level of lead found in children across Kabwe is around 5 to 10 times the EPA standards, making it one of the most toxic places in the world.
While there are ongoing efforts by international and local organizations to remedy the situation – including World Bank’s $40 million funding to reduce contamination across the Copperbelt – it has failed to achieve much. The local government is also reluctant to report the true extent of the crisis, as we still don’t have an accurate number on exactly how many people are still affected.
4. New Delhi, India
While it’s unfair to call any type of pollution the ‘worst’, air pollution is definitely one of the more inescapable ones of them all. And when it comes to air pollution, few cities in the world match up to the absolutely toxic air of New Delhi.
The city’s air quality has been consistently found to be the worst in the world for many years now. In 2019, the city’s concentration of pollutants in one cubic meter of air was found to be twice as much as Beijing’s – the ninth most polluted city of that year. The situation gets bad enough that the government has to shut off schools a few times every year.
While overcrowding and a rapidly-warming climate could be parts of the problem, the primary reasons behind the public health crisis are the rising number of vehicles and industrial waste generated by a variety of industries operating in the city.
3. Tianying, China
Tianying – not to be confused with Tianjin – in the Anhui province of China is a relatively small town of around 30,000 people. It’s also where almost half of the lead fueling the rise of China comes from, along with being a dumping ground for used batteries, putting it on any list of the most polluted cities in the world.
The problem lies in the government’s attitude towards industry in the town, as there are little to no restrictions on independent battery recyclers, who use shoddy methods to retrieve the lead, which is then used to make new batteries. As a result, the levels of lead in Tianying are about 8 to 10 times higher than national safety standards. Problems like kidney damage, anemia and brain damage are commonplace among over 140,000 people in and around Tianying, though because of a lack of reliable data, the true extent of the problem is still unknown.
While the Chinese government has made some efforts to fix the problem, independent reports suggest that it has done little to reduce the level of contamination in the town.
2. Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
Leather is seeing a rise in demand throughout the world, fueled by the fast fashion industry and the low cost of producing it in third world countries. If you know anything about the leather production procedure, though, you know that leather tanneries are some of the most toxic and polluting industrial units out there.
To understand the worst effects of the leather industry, we’d have to go to Hazaribagh – a residential as well as industrial neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Home to around 150 tanneries, most of which employ minors to work in hazardous, often-life-threatening conditions, Hazaribagh lies in one of the many special economic zones across Bangladesh exempt from regulation or government oversight. As a result, it has turned into an infamously-polluted region in a city that’s already one of the most polluted in the world.
Health problems like corroded limbs, permanent discoloration, asthma, disfigurement and many others could be commonly found among locals, as the tanning process involves quite a few harmful chemicals – like acid. Many of the workers also happen to be minors, often working without any protective equipment whatsoever.
1. Agbogbloshie, Ghana
The global industry of fancy, new gadgets is growing at a faster rate than ever before. We upgrade our phones and laptops faster than we can use them, though most of us rarely stop to think about what happens to all that electronic waste.
As you can guess from the general theme of this article, all of that waste is – often illegally – dumped in huge dumping grounds across the world, though mostly in the underdeveloped third world.
The biggest one of them is perhaps Agbogbloshie in Ghana. In most places, the town perfectly resembles a fictional post-apocalyptic wasteland (literally), as almost the entire region is dotted with burning mounds of various kinds of electronic waste from all over the world. Often dubbed as the ‘e-waste capital of the world’, a large chunk of the population of Agbogbloshie depends on salvage from the waste for daily livelihood, almost all of whom suffer from health disorders like skin diseases, respiratory problems and deformity.