The World’s Most Polluted Countries

Emerging nations around the world are often heralded for their fast growth but we don’t often hear about the downsides of that rapid development.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report on air quality in countries around the globe, on which we based a list of the ten most polluted countries. Almost all the worst offenders are either major oil and gas producers, or emerging economies that are growing rapidly.

The WHO study looked at air quality in 91 countries, measured by the amount of PM10 particles per cubic meter. PM10 particles are particles of 10 micrometers or less that can cause diseases and infections. According to the WHO, PM10 levels above 20 micrograms per cubic meter can cause health risks. The top ten most polluted countries have PM10 levels from six times to14 times that level.

So, which countries have the world’s worst air quality?

10. Kuwait

Pollution level: 123 ug/m3

Kuwait is one of four oil-rich Middle Eastern nations to make the list. It is also the fourth largest exporter of oil among OPEC countries, with the petroleum industry accounting for half of Kuwait's GDP.

Kuwait made headlines during the first Gulf War in 1990 when Iraqi troops set fire to its oil fields, creating massive air pollution and ground contamination. That led to a decades long environmental clean up.

Today, pollution is largely caused by local oil refineries and industrial plants. Last year, 15,000 students protested against pollution but the government has maintained that levels of air pollution are within environmental standards. Some plants though have been temporarily closed to improve air quality.

A 2010 global survey by consulting firm Gallup found that 57 percent of Kuwaitis were dissatisfied with the air quality in the area they lived in. Local residents are reported to suffer from high rates of respiratory diseases such as asthma, cancer and skin conditions.

9. Nigeria

Pollution level: 124 ug/m3

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the eighth most populous in the world with over 155 million people.

Rapid urbanization and economic development have led to haphazard industrial planning in cities like Lagos that are struggling with waste management and high levels of pollution.

The country is also Africa's largest oil producer, accounting for 2.3 million barrels of crude per day, according to the International Energy Agency. The Niger Delta region, where the world's biggest energy companies operate, has experienced some of the worst oil spills in history. In August, a United Nations report said 50 years of oil pollution in the Ogoniland area may require the world's biggest and longest cleanup. The 14-month study showed deeper pollution than previously thought in an area that is home to about one million people. The report said it could take 25 to 30 years to clean up the contaminated drinking water, land and ecosystems.

Pipeline vandalism to feed a black-market in oil is common in the region and often contributes to oil spills. In September, Shell said it would shut production of 25,000 barrels of crude per day in the area due to the recent upsurge of oil thefts.

8. Iran

Pollution level: 124 ug/m3

Iran is home to the world's most polluted city — Ahvaz, which has three-times the average amount of pollution in the country. Ahvaz, known for its oil fields, is a heavily industrialized desert city of 1.3 million people.

Iran has the world's third-largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves. Locally produced, low-quality gasoline has been blamed for the country's extreme air pollution. The high-octane fuel -- much lauded by the country's leaders -- is manufactured in petrochemical plants rather than refineries.

Iran's capital Tehran made headlines last December, when it was blanketed by smog, forcing the government to declare "pollution holidays" for several days, shuttering offices, businesses and schools. Tehran marked nearly a month of continuously high levels of pollution with hospitals reporting a spike in patients with breathing problems. The state's English language television channel Press TV said more than 80 percent of the city's air pollution was attributed to the 3.5 million vehicles on the roads.

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