The Worst Air Pollution in the World Is NOT in BeijingS

Man, do we love talking at how much China's air quality sucks—so much that we've even been suckered into fake viral memes about it. But, as the New York Times reports, Beijing's air pollution isn't even that bad... relatively speaking. "Lately, a very bad air day in Beijing is about an average one in New Delhi," says the Times in an article about the Indian city's smog.

New Delhi's smog doesn't have its own Twitter feed or much in the way of international press coverage, but it's quietly covered the city in a blanket of infinitesimal, lung-wrecking particles. The Times analyzed available data on PM2.5, or the concentration of particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are the most harmful to the lungs:

But for the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi's average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days.

The Worst Air Pollution in the World Is NOT in BeijingS

In fact, air pollution may be a bigger problem in South Asia and the Middle East than in China. Several cities in Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Saudi Arabia rank ahead of Beijing in the World Health Organization's data on average PM10, or the slightly larger air particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers and under. (These city data come from different years, so think of it as an approximate rather than exact comparison.)

What may be worrisome about the air pollution is that nobody's talking about it. While China has come under increasing pressure to clean up its act—both from inside the country and out—Delhites have other problems on their mind. Neither the residents or local government have air pollution in their agendas.

The Worst Air Pollution in the World Is NOT in BeijingS

At the same time, studies suggest that Indian's weak lung capacity is very much tied to the pollution they breathe. It has long been considered genetic, according to the Times' report, but a recent study of second-generation Indian immigrants born in the U.S. points toward the cause as environmental. Fine particulate matter has been linked to a host of health problems including heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, and heart failure.

The Worst Air Pollution in the World Is NOT in BeijingS

From a perch of clean air, it's hard not to be troubled at what passes for an ordinary day in New Delhi, or even Beijing.

But, as The Atlantic pointed out last year, the air of early 20th century industrial Pittsburgh was no better. Pollution is a byproduct of growth, and for these rapidly growing cities, that trade-off may not be worth it—yet. [The New York Times]

Photos of the smog in New Dehli via AP Photo