The Most Polluted Locations In The World

A copper plant in Norilsk, Russia. Norilsk ranks among the world's most polluted places.
A copper plant in Norilsk, Russia. Norilsk ranks among the world's most polluted places.

In 2013, Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland published a report on the Top 10 Toxic Threats in the form of a list of 10 of the worst polluted sites in the world. Pollution generated at these sites threaten the lives of thousands of people living at or near these sites. The Top Ten Toxic Threats in 2013 are as follows:

10. Agbogbloshie Dumpsite, Ghana

Ghana imports about 215,000 tons of used consumer electronics every year. Nearly half of this import is available for immediate sale after reconditioning but the remaining electronics are recycled. Agbogbloshie is West Africa’s second-biggest electronic waste processing site. Thousands of tons of e-waste arrive at this facility to be recycled. During this process, large volumes of waste are generated in the form of toxic fumes released into the air or chemicals released into the soil and surrounding water bodies. Processes like the burning of sheathed cable to extract copper generate toxic wastes like lead that are released into the environment. Since Agbogbloshie is an informal settlement with no proper demarcations between residential and industrial areas, it is easy for contaminants from industrial sites to enter the food and water consumed by the area’s resident population. Investigations revealed that the soil in and around Agbogbloshie was contaminated with high levels of lead. Workers engaged at the e-waste site in Agbogbloshie also had high levels of toxic chemicals in their systems.

9. Chernobyl, Ukraine

The Chernobyl Disaster that happened in Ukraine on April 25, 1986, is known to the world as one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. On the fateful day of April 25, a massive meltdown of a nuclear reactor released radioactivity that was 100 times greater than that released during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The radioactive emissions released during this disaster was not just contained within Ukraine but reached many parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The disaster was held responsible for 4,000 cases of cancer and numerous other adverse effects on the health of millions of people. Even today, the area of the disaster remains out of bounds of the public as dangerous levels of radionuclides have been detected on the surface soil at the site.

8. Citarum River, Indonesia

Often labelled as the world’s most polluted river, the Citarum River is located in Bandung on the Indonesian Island of Java. Water from the contaminated river has a direct adverse effect on the health of more than 500,000 people. The water of the river is used as a major source of drinking water on the island. It is also used by industries and for growing crops. Both domestic and industrial waste mismanagement are responsible for polluting the Citarum River. A number of contaminants like lead, aluminum, iron, manganese have been detected to be at toxic concentrations in the Citarum River.

7. Dzerzhinsk, Russia

For decades, Dzerzhinsk served as one of the Soviet Union’s main chemical manufacturing sites. Even today, Dzerzhinsk is an important hub of chemical production in Russia. Although more stringent pollution control measures have currently been adopted in Dzerzhinsk, nearly 300,000 tons of chemical wastes were improperly dumped in the area between 1930 and 1998. In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records recorded Dzerzhinsk as the world’s most polluted place. The sampling of the groundwater in Dzerzhinsk revealed that nearly 190 types of contaminants including phenol and dioxins were present in the water at highly toxic concentrations. As a result, the population in the area were afflicted with numerous diseases and disorders including high rates of cancer. In 2006, the average life expectancy in the area was recorded to be only 42 for men and 47 for women. Cancer rates are high among the population at Dzerzhinsk event today. Although much has been done in the recent years to make Dzerzhinsk a safer place, chemical pollution is still a major concern.

6. Hazaribagh, Bangladesh

Hazaribagh in Bangladesh is also listed by Pure Earth as one of the Top Ten Toxic Threats in 2013. The area hosts 90 to 95% of the 270 tannery units located in Bangladesh. All these tanneries are concentrated in an area of 25 hectares. Most use primitive techniques of operation and pay little heed to waste treatment. As a result, large volumes of toxic chemicals are released into the environment. Estimates suggest that the daily volume of tannery-generated waste dumped in Hazaribagh amounts to 22,000 cubic liters. Most of this waste enters the Buriganga, a river that acts as the main water supply for the people of Dhaka, the capital of the country. Hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, has been found as one of the waste chemicals released by these tanneries. The workers engaged in the tanneries hardly receive any protection against the toxic waste handled by them on a daily basis. Thus, they develop a number of illnesses including respiratory and skin disorders.

5. Kabwe, Zambia

Environmental contamination with lead due to mining and smelting activities have subjected the residents of Kabwe to numerous health threats. Lead mining and smelting began in Kabwe in 1902 and continued for about 90 years. In the beginning decades, little attention was paid to waste management processes. Large volumes of contaminants thus entered the environment. A 2006 study revealed a shocking fact. The lead levels in the blood of children living in Kabwe were analyzed and found to be about 5 to 10 times higher than the recommended levels. Although mining is currently inactive in the region, small-scale artisanal activity at the former mine sites continued to release toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water.

4. Kalimantan, Indonesia

Artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is responsible for mercury pollution in Indonesia’s Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. ASGM serves as the source of livelihood for about 43,000 people in the region. Mercury is used by these miners to extract gold from its ores. Most of them use primitive technology to execute the process without proper waste management. Mercury used in the process is thus released into the environment where it acts as a toxic pollutant. According to the UN Industrial Development Organization, ASGM released over 1,000 tons of mercury into the environment annually. The mercury is not only detrimental to the health of people living in and around such gold mining sites but also affects people living far away.

3. Matanza-Riachuelo, Argentina

The Matanza River in Argentina is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Around 15,000 industries including many chemical manufacturing units located in the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, release their effluents into the river. Loaded with contaminants, the river flows through 14 municipalities of Buenos Aries and deposits the pollutants along its course. Study of the soil along the banks of the river have revealed the presence of pollutants like chromium, zinc, lead, copper, etc., at levels that are way above the recommended levels. The high rates of pollution prevailing in the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin subjects the region’s population to respiratory and diarrheal diseases as well as cancer.

2. Niger River Delta, Nigeria

The Niger River delta that accounts for about 8% of Nigeria’s area, has a massive reserve of oil. Around 2 million barrels of oil were extracted from the delta every day in 2012. However, much of the oil extraction process in the region is not strictly monitored and unattended oil spills are extremely common. According to estimates, there were about 7,000 incidents involving oil spills occurring in the Niger River delta between 1976 and 2001. However, little of the spilled oil was ever recovered. The spilled oil contains hydrocarbons and other chemicals that at toxic concentrations are detrimental to human health. Some of these chemicals are also carcinogenic. The oil spills in the Niger River delta have not just contaminated the surface and groundwater in the area but also the air and the soil.

1. Norilsk, Russia

Founded in 1935, the industrial city of Norilsk is one of the most polluted places in the world. It hosts one of the globe’s biggest heavy metal smelting sites. About 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants are released into the air from the smelting factories based in the city. The health of nearly 130,000 people living in Norilsk is threatened by the toxic air, water, and soil of the region. Respiratory diseases and cancers are thus more common in Norilsk that in the surrounding areas.


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