A World Health Organization study measured pollution in 1,600 cities throughout the world. Overall air quality has worsened since the last such study back in 2011 with most of the decline coming from cities in the developing world. The Indian capital of New Delhi was found to have the worst air pollution of all, beating out even Beijing in terms of smog. In fact, 13 of the 20 worst cities for air quality were in India, with Patna, Gwalior and Raipur rounding out the top four (or bottom four, depending on how you look at it) after New Delhi. 

While this past winter’s “airpocalypse” grabbed plenty of headlines for Beijing — and with good reason — India was the dark horse in bad air, seemingly hiding behind China’s cloud of black carbon and pulling ahead while all eyes were on its rapidly industrializing neighbor.

The Indian government has responded to the WHO findings, claiming that while New Delhi’s air is on par with Beijing’s, it is not the worst in the world. Gufran Beig, an official from India’s System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), compared statistics of the averages of airborne particulate matter (PM2.5) between the two massive capitals and claimed air pollution levels were nearly the same between 2011 and 2014. He also disputed the WHO’s figures.

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A polluted sunrise in New Delhi. Pic: 4ocima (Flickr CC)

Via AFP:

If we compare yearly averages for each year from 2011-2014 then both cities [Delhi and Beijing] are almost comparable.

Delhi’s air quality is better than Beijing in summer and much better in monsoon season.It is winter pollution in Delhi and sudden spikes – which is quite high as compared to Beijing – triggered by meteorology.

—Gufran Beig, SAFAR

To put both China and India’s air pollution in perspective, let’s take a look at London, a city known historically and in the present age as a smoggy mess of traffic fumes and industrial pollution. While no longer producing coal-fired “pea soupers”, London has recently exceeded European Union standards for clean air by 50% in some areas (nitrogen oxide levels). It has been estimated that some 4,000 Londoners die each year from man-made air pollution.

The WHO study put London’s PM2.5 reading at 16, Beijing’s at 56 and New Delhi’s at a whopping 153.

Air pollution killed about 7 million people in 2012, making it the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, the WHO, a United Nations agency, said last month.

(source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Beijing has only published air quality data beginning in 2012. Greenpeace famously shamed the city for peaking at 900 PM2.5, reportedly the worst reading ever recorded anywhere. In fact, India’s claims of unfairness may be somewhat justified, as Beijing’s own statistics show its PM2.5 levels to be at an average of 89.5 for 2013. Still, with numbers anywhere near that bad, is there any point in quibbling?

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The battle of the smog — Beijing. Pic: Xiaojun Deng (Flickr CC)