Cities With The Worst Air Quality In South America

Cubatão, Brazil is an industry town known for being one of the most polluted cities in the world in the 1980s.
Cubatão, Brazil is an industry town known for being one of the most polluted cities in the world in the 1980s.

Air pollution is widespread and has brought about substantial effects on health. It is therefore an issue of international concern. Exposure to poor air quality has been ranked among the leading causes of premature deaths globally. Over 80% of urban populations globally are exposed to poor air quality levels some of which significantly exceed the WHO PM10 limit of 50microgram/m3. Although it is a global problem, the cities in low-income countries are significantly affected. Statistics from WHO reveal that a staggering 98% of major cities in poor and developing countries fail to meet air quality guidelines given by WHO. Cities in Chile, Brazil, and Colombia rank among the top thirty urban areas with the worst air quality in South America.

The Worst Air Quality in South America


With a population of more than 16 million people, Chile is undoubtedly South America’s most stable and competitive economy. However, the economic performance of the country comes at a price. Chile has been experiencing a decline in air quality over the past few decades. 12 of the country’s major cities ranked in the top thirty cities with the worst air quality in South America, with four ranking in the top ten. The fact that many Chilean homes use firewood for heating during winter is one of the reasons for the deprived quality of air. Firewood releases as much as 94% of the fine particulate matters encountered in most Chilean cities. Mining, fume emissions from cars, and improper disposal of waste in the streets also account for the air pollution in most of Chile’s cities and towns.


In the list of top 30 cities with worst air quality in South America, Colombia comes in second with seven cities. While none of its cities make it to the top 10 of the list, Colombia’s struggle with air pollution is experienced in both rural and urban areas. Similar to Chile a leading cause of the pollution is the use of firewood and other solid fuels for heating and cooking. In metropolitan areas such as Bogota, the pollution can be sometimes as high as twice the WHO limit.


Brazil is the largest country in South America. Five of its cities rank among South America’s most polluted locations. A short drive from the lush city life of Sao Paolo is Santa Gertrude, which ranks at the top of the list of the top 30 South American cities with the worst air quality with a PM10 average of 95microgram/m3. Santa Gertrude is one of the world’s largest producers of ceramic products, and it is from this economic activity that most of its pollution stems. The dust emitted during the extraction of clay, transportation, and production of ceramics accounts for more than 90% of the air pollution. Cubatão, Brazil ranks seventh. In the 1980s, Cubatão earned the name "Valley of Death" due to the large number of illnesses caused by pollutants.

Consequences of Air Pollution

The problems of air pollution are not unique to South American cities alone. Asia has reported even worse conditions. The consequences of the air pollution are pretty much the same across the globe. According to WHO data, polluted air is killing somewhere between 6 and 7 million people annually. The cost of air pollution to the health sector is estimated to be more than $670 million and causes more than 4,000 premature deaths each year. The statistic is quite similar in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. However, with the legislative measures that have been put in place, there is set to be some significant improvement in not only the quality of air but the quality of life as well.

Cities With The Worst Air Quality In South America

RankCity/TownCountryAverage mean PM10, ug/m3
1Santa GertrudesBrazil95
3La PazBolivia82
6Santo DomingoEcuador69
11Padre las CasasChile64
13Rio ClaroBrazil56
22Rio de JaneiroBrazil49
28La EstrellaColombia47

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