A couple crosses the street in Ahvaz. Image: Global Times
China's dirty air has been making headlines again, with record-breaking pollution again choking Beijing. But as John Upton points out in Slate, that smog isn't even close to the worst in the world. Beijing's sickening skies get more press because China is the great and enigmatic Rival of America, but according to the World Health Organization, citizens in scores of other cities breathe air that's exponentially nastier. Take Ahvaz, Iran, for instance—where you'll find far and away the most dangerous air pollution in the world.
The WHO ranks the Iranian city with 1.2 million residents as home to the highest levels of air pollution anywhere. Upton explains that "One of the crucial measures of dangerous air pollution is the number of parts per million of particles smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) wafting through the air. Beijing’s residents breathe in air with an average PM10 of 121, but millions of people have it worse. The rankings, cobbled together using air monitoring data from a variety of sources between 2003 and 2010, suggest that the world’s worst air pollution floats over Ahvaz, a city in southwestern Iran where the average PM10 level hovers around 372."
By comparison, the average level of particulate pollution—which causes respiratory illnesses, asthma, even cancer—is just 71 worldwide. The air quality in Ahwaz, Iran, in other words, is over five times as bad as the air the typical person breathes. For a more visceral look at what that level of pollution looks and feels like in practice, we turn, of course, to YouTube.
Here's some amateur footage of some Iranian park-goers enduring Ahvaz's air pollution:
It actually looks like this on the streets of Ahvaz:
Because of emissions from its power plants and factories just like this one:
A couple years ago, the BBC did a report on the conditions in Ahvaz (the shot above is from the segment), where its already disturbing levels of industrial pollution are compounded by dust storms like this one, captured in this shaky, low-quality hand-held video:
The storms blow pollution in from neighboring countries like Turkey, treating Ahvazi residents to lungful after lungful of of border-hopping toxic air. When you're inside the city while that cloud is smothering you, and you have Green Day on your car stereo, it feels something like this:
Ahvaz is, essentially, the worst place to breathe air on the planet. So let's peel our eyes away from Beijing for a second, and extend some sympathy to the industrial dystopia where the air is three times as polluted.