A general view shows the Taj Mahal amid heavy smog conditions in Agra.
Image: Pawan Sharma / AFP
In 2022, only 5% of countries met the annual air pollution thresholds set by the World Health Organization, according to estimates by the Swiss company IQAir. So which countries are breathing the most polluted air?
Around 90% of the world's population is affected by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) remains one of the greatest health threats to humanity, "with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and more than five times that of transport injuries like car crashes," according to research conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and published in August. This research estimates that strict adherence to the WHO thresholds for exposure to fine particles—5 µg/m3 or less as an annual average—would increase global life expectancy by 2.3 years. A report published in March 2023 by the Swiss air quality technology company IQAir estimates that in 2022, only 5% of countries met the WHO guidelines. This extensive study was based on data from over 30,000 air quality monitoring stations at 7,323 sites in 131 countries, territories and regions.
According to the report, the parts of the planet with the highest levels of fine particles in the air are mainly found in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. These include Chad, India, Iraq, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, the United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan and Egypt. These countries have the highest concentrations of fine particles in the world. Chad (Africa) beats all records with a fine particle concentration of 89.7 µg/m³, 17 times higher than the WHO PM2.5 annual guideline. Of all the countries surveyed, only six fell within the limit recommended by the WHO. These are Australia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Grenada and New Zealand. Also read: Air pollution from fires hits world's poorest hardest: study
In this ranking, the USA comes in at 99th place while France comes in at 84th place out of 131 countries, with an average fine particle concentration of 11.5 µg/m³ in 2022, 2.3 times higher than the WHO annual guidelines. The situation is equally worrying in the rest of Europe, where only 4.6% of cities and regions fall within the recommended limits. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most polluted country on the Old Continent, with 33.6 µg/m3. By contrast, Iceland has the cleanest air in Europe (3.4 µg/m3).
In September, The Guardian newspaper published research including an interactive map detailing air pollution levels in Europe. These investigations revealed that 98% of Europeans are breathing air with levels of fine particulate pollution that are well above World Health Organization guidelines. The city with the most polluted air is Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, with pollution levels almost six times higher than WHO guidelines.