Pollution Scorecard – WIF Environment

1 Comment

Countries Causing

the Most


If we humans were to have a collective hobby, it’d probably be ‘polluting the heck outta stuff’. As a species we chuck so much stuff into the atmosphere that there are arguably no pollution-free places left on Earth. Every year car exhausts, coal plants, forest fires and cow farts (seriously) wind up choking our atmosphere and heading the planet towards what we’re gonna call Climate-ageddon.

 But who’s really to blame for this planet-sized catastrophe? Well, it’s hard to tell, exactly. If you measure pollution per capita, then Canada is far and away the biggest emitter. On the other hand, if you measure environmental impact in terms of those killed by pollution, then the tiny nation of Georgia outstrips even China. On the other hand, if you look at it in terms of actual greenhouse house gas emissions, then there is one clear winner… scroll down to see it. But first, the 10 worst polluters in real terms, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.

10. Canada (557 mtCO2 emitted per year)

The second biggest nation on Earth, Canada is essentially an icy wilderness ringed by a tiny human population clinging desperately to its slightly-less frozen parts. It’s a land of virgin forest, desolate mountain ranges, crystal blue lakes, and enough pollution to suffocate a herd of buffalo. Sorry, what?

Yep, despite its squeaky-clean image, Canada is actually kind of dirty. And we don’t mean in the way yo momma is. Like the weed-addicted younger brother of America’s beer-swilling older sibling, Canada is puffing out more clouds of smoke than even the biggest bong-addict. Want the numbers? In 2015, Canada sent 557 mtCO2 (million tonnes of CO2) spewing into the air, from a population of 35.9 million. For comparison, the 11 th biggest polluter, Indonesia, sent 537 mtCO2 into the atmosphere from a population of over a quarter of a billion. And these guys have deadly annual smog that have killed 100,000 people.

Yet Canada may not keep its less-than-coveted 10th ranking for long. In October 2016, the government signed up for a carbon tax plan that could put the country on a path to a cleaner economy. Failing that, Indonesia’s pollution output is increasing like mad, so they’re probably about to overtake North America’s answer to Denmark pretty soon anyway.

9. South Korea (592 mtCO2 emitted per year)

On a peninsula half-occupied by the country of a demented fat man armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea can seem like a breath of fresh air. It’s clean, safe, modern, rich… and very, very dirty. Yeah, that ‘breath of fresh air’ we just mentioned? That was only metaphorical. Visit Seoul in spring, and it can feel like you’re trying to outdo your uncle’s four-pack-a-day habit with a single breath.

Partly, this is China’s fault. The neighboring super-polluter sends its toxic gunk spewing over both Koreas like an annoying kid repeatedly chucking his carcinogenic death-ball into your yard. But the Global Carbon Atlas doesn’t track pollution caused by other countries. Plenty of Seoul’s clean air problems come from the Republic of Korea itself. As NPR has pointed out, the country is powered by 50 coal plants, with more on their way. Then there’s the sheer size of their capital. Seoul has a bigger population than New York or London, and everyone’s driving cars. For comparison, dystopian nightmare LA recorded 7 days of air ranked ‘unhealthy’ in 2015. Seoul recorded 53.

So what’s South Korea doing to tackle this problem? Umm, nothing actually. They’re one of the few countries in smog-choked Asia Pacific that are increasing their carbon output.

8. Saudi Arabia (601 mtCO2 emitted per year)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the Saudi capital of Riyadh is one of the most polluted cities on Earth. Even Beijing doesn’t rank so highly in terms of horrifying stuff that’ll get into your lungs and make you feel like you’ve swallowed a cheese grater. While some of this is thanks to stuff beyond human control – namely, the region’s terrifying sandstorms – plenty can be laid squarely at the feet of the ruling classes. Across Saudi Arabia, industrial waste is let into the environment like it’s going out of fashion.

Part of this may be to do with the fact that the Wahhabist kingdom is a petro-state that bungs its 31 million citizens subsidized gas. Until recently, you could fill-up a medium-sized car from empty for about $7. While prices have gone up, that’s still a massive incentive to drive everywhere. Add lax rules with industrial waste and plenty of oil flowing, and it all adds up to a state where ‘environmental concerns’ are ranked by the government as a slightly lower priority than ‘literally anything else’.

Like South Korea, Saudi Arabia is not interested in cutting its current output by much. Although they signed up to a 50% clean energy target a while back, this was recently reduced to only 10%.

7. Iran (648 mtCO2 emitted per year)

A short hop over the Persian Gulf from Riyadh, and you arrive in one of the planet’s other super-polluters. The Islamic Republic of Iran is home to Ahvaz, a city with the unfortunate claim to fame of being literally the most polluted place on Earth. Air quality is so poor in this city of a million that the WHO can’t even measure how dangerous it is. Their official scale calls any place with over 20 micrograms of tiny, health-destroying PM10 particles per cubic meter of air a hazard. Ahvaz has over 372 micrograms of PM10s per cubic meter. You might as well just wire your lungs up to a sewage pipe as breathe this stuff.

But it’s not just Ahvaz. All across Iran, from Tehran to Qom, blankets of smog severely screw with people’s lives. In November 2016, all the capital’s schools had to be shut down due to clouds of killer fumes strangling the city. We aren’t using the word ‘killer’ lightly. Over 400 people died from the pollution in just 23 days.

Aside from a reliance on petrochemical industries, one big reason for Iran’s bad air is the sanctions placed on it following the Islamic Revolution. Fume-belching cars and low-grade fuel were all anyone could afford for decades, contributing to the current situation.

6. Germany (798 mtCO2 emitted per year)

So, we’re probably all pretty surprised to see Germany on this list. The economic powerhouse of the EU, Germany is also supposed to be unfailingly clean and efficient. Which it totally is… provided you just concentrate on visible dirt. Focus on those pesky invisible PM10s, and wandering through Germany’s cities is like stepping into a blizzard of flying death.

 Stuttgart, for example, has been called “Germany’s Beijing”. While you won’t get the same clouds of smog you get in China, you’ll still get pretty unhealthy air. Hazardous particles exceeded the legal limit for 64 days in 2014, more than Seoul and Los Angeles combined. Elsewhere, things are just as bad. 28 areas of Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, have levels of air pollution considered dangerous. In 2013 alone, hazardous amounts of nitrogen dioxide were estimated to have killed over 10,600 Germans.

Things have gotten so bad that the EU recently threatened to hit Germany with a hefty fine if it didn’t clean up its act (literally). Not that they can really talk. Taken as a single nation, the EU would be the 3rd biggest polluter on Earth.

5. Japan (1,237 mtCO2 emitted per year)

Leaping upwards a few hundred million tonnes of CO2 per year, orderly Japan emits enough bad gas per annum to make it Asia Pacific’s 2nd biggest polluter. Man, what is it with these supposedly clean countries and terrible air quality?

Actually, we’re being pretty unkind here. Japan may be a high-level emitter today, but it’s a squeaky-clean utopia compared to what came before. In the 1960s, Japan was what China is now: a smog-choked industrial powerhouse that was raking in billions, even as it killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens with horrifically unsafe air. Some pollution-related illnesses, such as Minamata Disease, are still known globally after the Japanese cities where they were first identified. It was only after a massive push to curb emissions in the 1970s that Japan started its slow climb down from smog-filled dystopia to the relatively clean place it is today.

In fact, things would likely be even better, were it not for Japan’s recent reliance on coal fired power stations. 2014 was the country’s second-worst year for emissions on record. For that, you can thank the Fukushima disaster of 2011. The only nuclear disaster in history to come within touching distance of Chernobyl, it resulted in nearly all of Japan’s nuclear plants being shut down and replaced with coal fired ones.

4. Russian Federation (1,617 mtCO2 emitted per year)

If you need an illustration of how polluted Russia is, look no further than the town of Karabash. A small town 100 miles north of Kazakhstan, Karabash is home to only 13,000 people… possibly because no one else is fundamentally insane enough to live there. The river water is orange. The lake is dead and red. A mile-long ridge of black slag runs through the town. The air is so nasty it causes your eyes to sting and your throat to burn. Children have multiple birth defects. In 1996, the government declared it a disaster zone.

Of course, most Russians don’t live in a city even remotely approaching this bleak state. But even in the richer, western cities, things can still get bad. Moscow occasionally records pollution at ‘especially dangerous’ levels, and, in 2010, was hit by a suffocating smog more like something you’d see in Beijing. Still, it’s the Siberian industrial towns that are really to blame for Russia’s impact on climate change.

Interestingly, the Kremlin doesn’t seem too bothered about combatting this. Although Moscow announced a recent carbon reduction plan, some analysts have said it’ll actually increase emissions in the long term.

3. India (2,274 mtCO2 emitted per year)

When you’re emitting as much gunk into the air as Russia and Iran combined, you know you’ve got a problem. At least, you probably should. But India is something else. Home to five of the world’s most polluted cities, its insane population levels are contributing to an ecological bomb that could threaten the entire region. It’s estimated that up to 1.2 million people die in India each year due to air pollution. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Prague dropping dead every 12 months.

Although India has signed up to cut emissions and move towards clean energy, economists are asking whether this will be possible in a practical sense. India’s economy is booming, but it’s still a long, long way behind even China in terms of supplying a decent standard of living for its poorest citizens. Hundreds of millions still lack electricity. Tens of millions are stuck in poverty so dire most of us can’t even imagine it. Central to India’s recent economic gains have been its reliance on cheap, atmosphere-destroying coal. Take that away, and Delhi worries it will be condemning its citizens to an eternity of moneyless misery.

On the other hand, India is also one of the countries that will be most affected by climate change, with its coastal cities being flooded and crops destroyed. Huh. Some choice.

2. USA (5,414 mtCO2 emitted per year)

Sorry to any frat bros out there hoping to start up a chant of “USA! USA!” when America snagged the top spot. The good ol’ US-of-A ain’t even close to being the planet’s number one emitter. That’s not to say they’re a slouch, though. With over 5,000 million tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere each year, the USA is laying into the atmosphere with more gusto than nearly any other country on Earth.

“But hang on,” you may be thinking, “the US doesn’t have any of the post-apocalyptic pollution wastelands you’ve written about for most other entries.” Well, no, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean bad stuff isn’t happening. A 2016 report by the American Lung Association found more than half the country’s population lives at risk of breathing in dangerous air pollution. That’s 166 million Americans at risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease and reproductive problems, all thanks to the air they’re breathing.

To be fair, the US’s air problems don’t all start in Washington. The smog in Western states frequently starts life in China and India, before drifting into the USA and causing misery for millions. Still, America isn’t totally innocent. According to the Global Carbon Atlas, it’s still one of the biggest emitters, however you cut it. Yet even this pollution behemoth has nothing on…

1. China (10,357 mtCO2 emitted per year)

Be honest: you saw this coming, didn’t you? No other country on Earth emits as much smoggy nastiness as China. If the USA, India, Russia and Japan were all to suddenly decide to conglomerate into a single state (we’re not exactly sure why or how), that new super-nation would still only be emitting the same amount of greenhouse gas as China. If polluting was an Olympic sport, China would bring home gold every single time.

You hardly need us to repeat all the stories of China’s toxic air. The deadly smog that suffocate entire regions. The impenetrable haze that makes seeing more than a few meters in front of your face an impossibility in Beijing. The studies that have compared breathing the country’s air to being as bad for you as smoking. It’s all grim stuff that’s pretty well known.

But hey, at least China signed up to the Paris Agreement, right? And Beijing seems pretty down with combating this whole ‘toxic air’ thing. Not quite. Recent data has shown that China’s air crisis is actually getting worse as time goes by. Expect them to stay at #1 for some time yet.

Pollution Scorecard

WIF Environment

Things That Kill, Not All from China – WIF Lists

1 Comment

Urban Hazards

That Could

Kill You

The urban environment can be scary. While the dangers of the outdoors and wilderness survival are well publicized, city planners, businesses and the public alike struggle with how to mitigate the dangers with which the urban environment is fraught. Let us now explore the chilling survival dangers that may face us vulnerable humans in the wild, wild world that is the city. Eerily, some of the worst hazards come from attempts at charity, efficiency, or green innovation.

10. Monster Icicles

It is less well known than it should be that urban environments juxtapose walking areas for pedestrians with perfect places for icicles to drop from great heights. This can be deadly. In cities with cold winter climates, sufficient precipitation and the presence of tall buildings, such as St. Petersburg, Russia or New York, USA, a perfect storm exists that has, tragically, caused numerous injuries and in some cities, repeated fatalities. Environmental sustainability measures centered on making buildings more energy efficient have perversely created increased danger to the public in certain cases.

A 2010 article in the International Journal on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat describes how buildings built to be energy efficient (or renovated to be energy efficient) release less heat, saving energy but dramatically increasing the accumulation of potentially dangerous ice formations on the outside of skyscrapers. When temperatures rise, ice chunks fall to the city streets below. Icicles forming as water drips down the edges of buildings has caused tragic deaths, most notably in St. Petersburg, Russia where in a single year (2010) a shocking five people died and 150 were injured after being hit by huge falling icicles or ice chunks. Senseless carnage! Novosibirsk, the third most populated city in Russia, also saw a cold tragedy toward winter’s end in 2015 when a 20-year-old woman was killed by ice falling 14 stories from a canopy. Blame has been placed on officials for failing to ensure dangerous ice was removed.

9. Killer Dumpsters

Dumpster diving is a popular activity for the homeless, those trying to save a few dollars, or certain “freegans” trying to make a political or economic statement about thrown away food. Yet another kind of dumpster diving (for dumpster contents that are not garbage) have claimed several lives, prompting calls for a ban. These are the clothing donation bins that have caused seven deaths Canada-wide since 2015. The complicated mechanism of these bins, designed to prevent theft can crush people between metal plates aided by their own body weight as they reach into the bins in an attempt to retrieve clothing.

The problem is worst in Canada, for reasons still in question, but deaths have occurred elsewhere globally but in fewer numbers. People have been found dead in clothing donation bins, while in other cases, screams were heard but the victim died of crushing and suffocation before they could be helped. For example, help came too late to save one woman whose vehicle was still running beside a bin that she entered at night, only to get caught up and be left hanging from broken limbs. Efforts to curb the deaths include outright bans or voluntary removals of bins in certain jurisdictions, along with engineering team efforts to design a safer system.

8. Stray Bullet Strikes

Stray bullets can arise from surprising sources and travel in the strangest trajectories, killing people in cities who had nothing to do with either celebrations, gang violence, or warfare. Bullets travel farther than people commonly understand, less accurately than often believed, and can ricochet or achieve a lethal potential falling in an arc after being fired into the air. A growing number of people in the United States have lost their lives when a bullet entered their home or hit them in the street. Just one Baltimore street saw a three-year-old killed and then a nine-year-old girl injured by stray bullets in two separate incidents. These cases of accidental urban shootings are examples of a growing problem. Between March 2008 and February 2009, over 300 people were hit by stray bullets in the United States.

A variety of demographics were represented in an analysis of those hit, and those who were identified as responsible in stray bullet cases. Shockingly, children formed 30 percent of the victims. The urban threat is not primarily a street issue, as 68 percent of victims were struck indoors, including 40 percent being accidentally shot in their own homes. There is also an urgent need to stop the celebratory firing of live rounds at events such as New Years around the world. Senseless fatalities, such as the 2014 deaths of two children in the Philippines when bullets fired to celebrate New Years struck them in their home, serve as an example.

7. Airplane Crashes

Urban airplane crashes kill more people than you would think. Look out: the sky is not falling, but its contents just might. We might think of aircraft travel as safe, but when accidents happen, they are notably catastrophic a lot of the time. Furthermore, those on the ground are at risk, especially in cities. Tall buildings present easily struck obstacles, while lower buildings and roads may be hit if a runway is missed. Global aviation disaster records show around 200 crashes that caused fatalities on the ground. The single worst ground fatality event in aviation history resulting from an accident was the crash of an Air Africa Antonov-An-32B into a street market in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed at least 225 and injured.

In 1992, a notable disaster took place when approximately 100 people in an apartment building in Amsterdam lost their lives as an airliner flew into the building, causing an immense fireball. Terrorism caused the most serious incidents, the 9/11 terrorist attacks killing more than 2,500 people on the ground. Large aircraft are also known to shed heavy parts, but a more common danger comes from small planes crashing in suburbs, such as one recent case in Southern California where four people in a house died when an 8-seater Cessna broke up in mid-air and caused the house to explode into a fiery mass upon impact.

6. Accidental Drug Exposures

The use of illegal “recreational” drugs presents significant risks to users. However, as prohibited street drugs get more potent and deadly, the potential for collateral damage in urban areas to non-users rises. The appearance of fentanyl as an illegal substance often used to cut less potent drugs poses an extreme threat to law enforcement and the public. An increasingly abused substance on the streets that is of medical origin, fentanyl often comes in a fine powder. If inhaled, even a tiny amount of this drug (that is around 50 times stronger than most forms of heroin) may dangerously inhibit respiratory function, easily causing death. In one case, first responders assisting an overdose victim themselves experienced symptoms of an overdose, prompting emergency management authorities to highlight the risks of accidental exposure.

If this was not enough, another substance originating from fentanyl, carfentanil, is around 100 times more potent than regular fentanyl. Terrifying! In addition to the growing threat caused by these rogue opioids proliferating in world cities, drug use poses other threats. Discarded needles are becoming ubiquitous, showing up in garbage cans, at bus stops, and in playgrounds, parks, and even townhouse common grounds. Accidental sticking with discarded needles may lead to exposure to bloodborne diseases if accidentally touched in a way that the skin of the unwitting handler is broken. Means of exposure include handling garbage, walking in grass, or picking up clothing in which a needle is present.

5. Extreme Smog

Major urban centres like Los Angeles, Beijing, and London continue to provoke health conditions and contain significant quantities of toxic smog. Extreme incidents involving smog have marked some of the low points of urban history, the London Killer Fog of 1952 being one of the most notorious examples.  The fog only lasted five days, but the chemical reaction between sulfur dioxide, natural fog, and nitrogen dioxide, creating highly corrosive sulfuric acid fumes in the city. Poisoned badly, 12,000 people died, while 150,000 were so sick they required hospitalization. By 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed to get control of the deadly risks of urban coal burning.

Despite the improvements, London today still has air that has become comparable to New Delhi or Beijing, two large cities known for their frequent air quality advisories. London’s problem with nitrogen dioxide continues, exacerbated by sunlight, which produces ozone pollution. Cities such as New Delhi, however, suffer from worse particulate pollution, yet the levels of potentially life-shortening nitrogen dioxide in London are significantly worse than conditions in a city as large as New York, putting a strain on health services. Air pollution in China causes around 1.1 million premature deaths annually, part of a constellation of problems that prompted Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang to declare “war on pollution” in China, with the intention of “making our skies blue again.” Efforts are focused on reducing steel production and coal-fired energy generation, which are key polluters.

4. Freak Urban Floods

Cities are often built in low-lying areas, while the removal of vegetation and construction beside watercourses in urban areas exacerbates flooding. Urban floods are especially dangerous due to the presence of electrical wires, with electrocution a noteworthy result of certain urban floods. Even in areas that might be thought of as being more dry, flash floods can pose an extraordinary risk in urban locales. In the large Saudi Arabian city Jeddah, 2009 and 2011 saw floods roar through the desert city, killing over 100 people. A lack of proper drainage and flood absorbing vegetation presents a challenge that must be addressed through better installation of natural infrastructure such as constructed wetlands and drains to slow and absorb floodwaters.

Furthermore, urban industry poses the threat of some very strange floods. Eight deaths resulted when thousands of gallons of beer were accidentally released into the streets in the “London Beer Flood” of 1814, while the “Great Boston Molasses Flood” in the United States in 1919 killed 21 people and injured 150, when a huge tank full of molasses broke and let out a wave of molasses 15 feet tall that rushed through streets and buildings, creating a half mile long swathe of destruction and death as people were trapped and drowned in the sticky substance.

3. Infrastructure Failures

We typically trust bridges, power pylons, overpasses, and roads to be well constructed. But a surprising number of deaths take place in cities around the world when the stress of everyday use does not match up to engineering projections and design provisions. Infrastructure collapses in developing countries or political jurisdictions without sufficient engineering codes are expected, but it may surprise people how many disasters have occurred in jurisdictions where infrastructure is thought to be quality and safe.

Between 1989 and 2000, more than 500 bridge failure disasters occurred in the United States! It is often not the result of an earthquakes, but floods or the negligence of a single motorist colliding with critical bridge support structures that sets off a collapse. Other times, engineering mistakes fail to take into account the enormous cumulative load from traffic, settling, and torsion or settling forces, leading to gradual failure or a sudden, catastrophic collapse. Collapses of overpasses above traffic are also some of the worst types of infrastructure collapse risks in cities. So, when you are traveling on a bridge, or below underpasses, you might want to think about the merits of not getting stuck under an overpass or on a bridge that possibly leads nowhere.

2. Asbestos Exposure

Urban exploring, where enthusiasts often illicitly traverse old factories, office towers, and tunnels, enjoys popularity but it can be very risky due to the chance of encountering asbestos. Asbestos, once welcomed as a problem solving “wonder material” with its fireproof insulator properties, is proof that the worst hazards are not always man-made, but natural in origin. Massive quantities of asbestos were once incorporated into urban structures of all kinds. Asbestos formed of minute, dangerous fibers can get into the lungs, where they cause serious inflammation and, eventually, lung cancer.

In the urban environment, almost any older building could be a dangerous storehouse of asbestos fibers. Even careful acts of urban exploration may cause ceilings, walls, stairwells, or old insulation panels to give way, releasing asbestos. No wonder asbestos exposure constitutes the number one threat to the urban explorer, according to Jason Robinson, who founded the Ohio Exploration Society. Not only urban explorers, but renovators and construction workers are confounded by the asbestos threat. Many urban construction projects have the potential to unleash massive quantities of asbestos when past construction work is disturbed. Dealing with asbestos is a liability but also a significant business activity, with workers suiting up until they resemble astronauts in a bid to get rid of the danger.

1. Gas Leaks & Carbon Monoxide

Colorless, odorless, and hard to notice, carbon monoxide remains an insidious and quick killer responsible for numerous deaths from small and large scale equipment failures and also installation mistakes. The substance is a dangerous, but formed of two completely harmless substances that make up your food, your body, and the air around you, albeit in a different molecular order. One molecule of carbon binds to one molecule of oxygen in a byproduct of certain combustion reactions, but the danger is much greater than the sum of the parts. Carbon monoxide is capable of physically replacing the oxygen in your bloodstream.

While taking the place of oxygen, this impostor chemical fails to provide the life sustaining support that oxygen lends. Eerily, the chemical has no taste, smell or color and is often not detected until death results, particularly if the victim is asleep. Many deaths have resulted from blocked chimneys, use of fuel burning machines indoors, or leaving a car running in an enclosed space. A number of deaths result every year, while lower levels of poisoning that cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness — or even seizures — may be misdiagnosed. Maintenance of equipment and avoidance of unsafe practices, followed by installation of monitors, are key ways to avoid fatal incidents.

Things That Kill,

Not All from China

WIF Lists