5 Worst Cities to Visit if You Enjoy Breathing Fresh Air

Taj Bates

We live in a day and age when people in certain parts of the world are literally buying fresh air — yes, air... bottled and shipped in from the Canadian Rockies, the English countryside, Australian beaches...

Though this is just a novelty industry at present, it is an industry borne of the high levels of deadly air pollution plaguing many cities, in Asia especially.

According to the World Health Organization, 3.7 million people die from diseases caused by prolonged exposure to ambient air pollution every year, worldwide.

Plume Labs, the enviro-tech company behind the Plume Air Report app, tracks air pollution levels around the globe.

We dug into their data from the past two years (2016 and 2017), and discovered quite a number of popular tourist destinations high up on the World's Worst Air Quality list.

#1 - New Delhi, India 

184 AQI

India’s capital city ranked first of the worst on Plume's air quality index (AQI) for 2017. In fact, the toxic smog got so bad during a period in November 2017, United Airlines temporarily cancelled all flights there.

Worse yet, New Delhi doesn't just have the highest AQI, but also the highest level of Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5).

PM2.5 are microscopic, inhalable particles that form when pollutants chemically combine in the atmosphere. When inhaled, these minute bad boys can negatively affect the heart and lungs, shortening one’s life span considerably under long-term exposure.

#5 - Xi'an, China 

133 AQI

China has no shortage of cities on the World's Worst list. The highest ranking one from a tourist perspective is the ancient city of Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Army.

The Army is comprised of 8,000, life-sized terracotta sculptures of soldiers, horses and chariots that were buried to protect the 3rd century, B.C.E., tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first emperor. 

Though the tomb is enclosed in an indoor structure, that does not cancel out the alarming fact that Xi'an has the sixth highest level of PM2.5 in the world. 

#9 - Abu Dhabi, UAE

125 AQI

Though not as populous as Dubai, its sister city to the north, Abu Dhabi has the worst AQI in the Arab world. 

As the royal capital of the United Arab Emirates, it is home to a number of attractions, including Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the newest, largest, prettiest and whitest mosques on Earth.

However, one can't help but wonder how long it will be before the mosque's white marble walls begin to grey from soot and smog.

On a positive note, Abu Dhabi isn't among the Top 100 cities with high levels of PM2.5.

#15 - Beijing, China

110 AQI

Beijing is a main gateway for those wishing to visit the Great Wall of China. Yet, the world’s longest wall, and one of history’s greatest military feats, is ill-suited to defend China’s capital city from enemy pollutants in the air.

Beijing ranks 15th in the world both in AQI and PM2.5. Not as horrid as Xi'an, but still has a long, long way to go.

#23 - Chengdu, China

97 AQI

Chengdu is located in the heart of the Sichuan province, which is a mecca for spicy food lovers. The city’s main attraction is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where you can see giant pandas in a natural habitat.

Unfortunately, these yin-and-yang hued bears, native only to south-central China, must breath air that has the 19th highest concentration of PM2.5 in the world.

When it comes to your hard-earned vacation days and dollars, going to a place with severe levels of air pollution can cast a serious pall on your trip.

While I suffered no ill effects during a jaunt through mainland China a few years back that began in Beijing and ended in Shanghai, with stopovers in Xi'an, et al....

Two years after my trip, a friend of mine went to live in Beijing for a time, where she spent much of her days indoors, feeling sick as a dog, due to worsening levels of smog — way worse than when I was there.

Now, my motivation in sharing this list with you isn't, necessarily, to discourage you from venturing to these destinations. Rather, it is to warn you to take precautions if you choose to do so.

Or, better yet, to hold off a few years until local governments have — hopefully — implemented aggressive, environmentally-safe solutions, policies and staunch penalties to significantly decrease air pollution.

This is indeed do-able.

What is happening in many Asian countries is what was true in the U.S., U.K., and other now-First-World nations during their Industrial Revolutions in the 19th century, exacerbated by the advent of cars and urban commuting in the 20th. 

Before waves of environmental regulations and enforcement from the 19th thru to today, factories in much of the now-First-World used to pollute with reckless and deadly abandon.

This is a #tbt photo (c. 1940) of Pittsburgh, one of America's most prolific factory towns. Even in black-and-white, it's easy to see the thick smog that was a mainstay o'er the city for a century, till the passage of a game-changing, smoke control ordinance in 1941.

A decade later, in December 1952, a blanket of smog covered the city of London for 5 days, killing more than 12,000 people and hospitalizing 150,000. The Great Smog of 1952 led to the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1956 in the United Kingdom.

Today, Pittsburgh and London are nowhere near the top of the World's Worst Air Quality list. 

So when it comes to places like New Delhi and Xi'an, there is hope in this environmentalist heart of mine that in the coming years and decades, they will metamorphose from the World's Worst to the World's Best