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The 10 Most Polluted Places on Earth

Billions of people worldwide are affected by pollution from industrial waste and air emissions. In the worst cases, tens of thousands of people are literally poisoned to death each year, according to the environmental group the Blacksmith Institute.

worst polluted places on earth

The 10 worst polluted places on earth were chosen based on their severe impact to human health -- and particularly that of children.

In fact, a full 20 percent of premature deaths in the developing world are caused by pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, still others living in polluted areas suffer from neurological problems, damaged immune systems, birth defects and other long-term health problems.

To help place international awareness on some of the world's most polluted places, and to help spread the word that practical solutions exist, the Blacksmith Institute has created "The World's Worst Polluted Places 2006."

The report lists the top 10 locations on Earth where polluted air, water and/or soil are severely impacting human health, and particularly the health of children.

Over 10 million people in eight countries who live near these 10 locations are being put at an increased risk of cancer, respiratory and other chronic diseases and premature death, according to the report.

The World's 10 Most Polluted Places

  • Dzerzinsk, Russia

The city is a significant center of Russian chemical manufacturing and was a principal production site of chemical weapons until the end of the Cold War. Chemicals and toxic byproducts in groundwater and water supplies include dioxins, phenol, mustard gas, lead and other persistent organic chemicals. Some chemicals in the groundwater are reported to be 17 million times the safe limit.

About 300,000 people are affected, and the average life expectancy in the city is just 42 years for men and 47 for women.

Currently, a large-scale remediation and pollution mitigation plan for the entire affected area is being designed.

  • Linfen, Shanxi Province, China

A primary center of China's coal industry where residents say they choke on coal dust in the evenings. Toxins found in the city's air, water and elsewhere include fly-ash, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, PM-2.5, PM-10, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, arsenic and lead.

Some 200,000 people are at an increased risk of bronchitis, pneumonia, lung cancer and arsenicosis, an environmental chemical disease caused by drinking elevated concentrations of arsenic. Meanwhile, the report noted that Linfen is just an example of many highly polluted cities in China. According to World Bank, 16 of the world's most polluted cities are in China.

Information on cleanup progress in this area was not available, according to the report.

  • Kabwe, Zambia

Located around the "Copperbelt," the once thriving mining and smelting base in Zambia, Kabwe's soil and water are polluted with lead and cadmium, affecting about 250,000 people.

On average, in Kabwe children's blood levels of lead are five to 10 times the allowable EPA maximum. Symptoms of acute lead poisoning (vomiting, diarrhea, muscle spasms, kidney damage) can occur at blood levels of 20 micrograms per deciliter and levels in excess of 120 can often lead to death. However, levels of over 200 mcg/dl have been found in the bloodstreams of Kabwe's children.

One of the most common ways people are exposed to the contaminants in the area is by breathing in contaminated soil. Clean-up strategies in Kabwe are in their primary stages. Residents are being educated about the dangers (and told not to let children play in the soil and to rinse dirt from plates, etc.) while remediation efforts are being investigated.

world's most polluted

Sadly, this top 10 list is only a sampling of the countless polluted regions worldwide.

  • Norilsk, Russia

Home to the world's largest heavy metals smelting complex, which discharges over 4 million tons of nickel, cadmium, copper, lead, arsenic, selenium and zinc annually, Norilsk has been closed to foreigners since November 2001.

About 134,000 people are being affected in the city, which is called one of the most polluted places in Russia, "where the snow is black, the air tastes of sulfur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average," according to the report.

Increased rates of respiratory, ear, nose and throat diseases have been reported among children in the area, along with problems with pregnancy and premature births.

In the 1980s emission reduction techniques were put in place, however studies show that pollution is still a significant problem in the area.

  • Haina, Dominican Republic

A now closed automobile battery recycling smelter caused significant lead pollution in this highly populated area. Some 85,000 people in the area are at risk, and studies have found alarming lead levels in the Haina community.

Birth deformities, eye damage, learning and personality disorders, and death from lead poisoning have all been reported at higher than normal rates in the area. Cleanup activities are in their early planning stages.

  • Chernobyl, Ukraine

The home to the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986, Chernobyl was exposed to 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated 5.5 million people were initially affected.

An estimated 100 tons of uranium and other radioactive products, such as plutonium, are still trapped within the plant itself, and could be released if there was another accident. Meanwhile, leaks in the structure may be contaminating groundwater. Thyroid cancer in children and potential other cancer risks are the major health concerns in the area.

Although expert groups have examined health impacts and remediation effects in the area, implementation of an integrated radioactive waste management program needs to be assessed before it can be developed further.

pollution clean up efforts

The Blacksmith Institute and other environmental groups are helping to spur cleanup and remediation efforts at some of the most toxic places around the globe.

  • La Oroya, Peru

About 35,000 people are being exposed to toxic emissions of lead and sulfur dioxide from a metal processing plant, owned by the Missouri-based Doe Run Corporation, in the city.

Ninety-nine percent of children living in and around La Oroya have blood lead levels that are higher than acceptable, and surrounding vegetation has been killed off by acid rain.

According to Peru's Clean Air Act, La Oroya is suffering from critical levels of air
pollution, but in 2004 the Doe Run Corporation asked for a four-year extension on their environmental management plan, so cleanup action has been delayed.

  • Ranipet, India

Leather tanning wastes are contaminating groundwater in Ranipet with hexavalent chromium and putting about 3.5 million people at risk. It's estimated that about 1.5 million tons of solid tannery wastes from the last two decades are stacked in an open yard near the plant, which is contaminating groundwater.

Indian farmers cultivating nearby land say that only one in five crops does well and that the water causes ulcerations to their skin and "stings like an insect bite," according to the report.

The National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) have been assigned to design and implement remediation plans to cleanup the area.

  • Rudnaya Pristan and Dalnegorsk, Russia

About 90,000 residents of these two far east Russian towns are suffering from serious lead poisoning from an old smelter and the unsafe transport of lead concentrate from the local lead mining site.

Children's blood lead levels in the area are eight to 20 times the maximum allowable U.S. levels, and drinking water, interior dust and garden crops also likely contain dangerous levels of lead.

The lead smelter shut down voluntarily after the Blacksmith Institute showed the owner the impact of the lead on children's health. Area children are having their lead levels tested and are being treated if necessary. Meanwhile, residents are being educated about the lead risks. A plan to remediate the area still needs to be drawn up and implemented.

  • Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan

Mailuu-Suu is home to a former Soviet uranium plant that processed more than 10,000 metric tons of uranium between 1946 and 1968. Today, it has 23 tailing dumps and 13 waste rock dumps, which contain 1.96 million cubic meters of radioactive mining waste.

Though 23,000 people are being immediately affected, the area is prone to landslides, mudslides and earthquakes, which means millions of people could potentially be at risk.

Studies have found people in the area to be getting high doses of radon, and twice as many residents in the area suffer from some form of cancer than in the rest of the country.

The World Bank has begun a project to "minimize the exposure of humans, livestock, and riverine flora and fauna to radionuclide associated with abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste rock dumps in the Mailuu-Suu area." Costs of the project are estimated at nearly $12 million.

Recommended Reading

Pharmaceutical Pollution: What it is, and How Pharmaceutical Pollution Threatens Your Health

Air Pollution Increases Your Risk of Heart Attack, Stroke and More


The Blacksmith Institute's World's Worst Polluted Places October 2006

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