STATESIDE STORIES: World’s Most Contaminated Cities

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by Mary Foran 


Madrid is not known for its pure air, not even when I lived there years ago. In fact, the European Union has threatened the city with hefty fines if it fails to improve its air quality. According to some statistics, one million cars enter the city every day. These cars have to park somewhere, and Madrid has come up with a new method, officials say the first of its kind in the world, to help reduce emissions in the city.

The parking plan entails the use of smart parking meters which place a surcharge on the most polluting, older vehicles and give discounts to high-efficiency and hybrid cars, or electric cars which will park for free, this, according to an article in the Guardian by Ashifa Kassam out of Madrid in April, 2014. There will also be new energy efficient busses and a bike sharing program starting in June. Madrid’s limit for pollution levels generally exceeds the EU average as well as nitrogen dioxide levels from car exhausts, which have occasionally spiked five times the limit deemed safe by the EU. Cough it up, Madrid! Such a beautiful city under such an unpleasant haze…

Monument of King Alfonso XII at the Retiro Park in Madrid

The Retiro park in Madrid, with the monument of King Alfonso XII

But Madrid shouldn’t feel despair about the pollution situation. According to the statistics from the World Health Organization, Madrid is not in the top ten most contaminated cities in the world, even with all its cars. The ranking goes as follows:

1) Ahwaz, Iran. 2) Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. 3) Sanandaj, Iran. 4) Ludhiana, India. 5) Quetta, Pakistan. 6) Kermanshah, Iran. 7) Peshawar, Pakistan. 8) Gaborone, Botswana. 9) Yasouj, Iran. 10) Kanpur, India.

Iran and India have problems, it seems, and Madrid ranks far below them.

On the American side of the equation, while cars are ubiquitous, the Department of Environmental Quality tests every vehicle every year, and in order to drive, your vehicle has to pass. This has led to fewer emissions, and the newer cars are more fuel-efficient and give better mileage. Electric cars are becoming more popular in the cities, and hybrids take their share of the new buyers’ market.

A cartoon on www., the official US government source for fuel economy information, urging people to "make [their] plug-in vewhicle even greener"

A cartoon on www., the official US government source for fuel economy information, urging people to “make [their] plug-in vewhicle even greener”

In any case, pollution is still a problem in big cities. But in a Reader’s Digest survey back in 2005, the cities were ranked from cleanest to worst. Out of 50 cities surveyed, Portland, Oregon got 49 points, San Francisco got 47, Seattle, Washington got 36, Washington D.C. got 25, New York got 11, Detroit got 10, Chicago got 3 and Los Angeles, California got a mere 2. Then there are the great wide open spaces where air quality is not a problem.

I lived in some of the most contaminated areas of Madrid, and in some of the most pleasant, near the Retiro Park, the lungs of Madrid like Central Park in New York. The case is not hopeless, as Madrid officials take the Spanish Bull-By-The-Horns of a world-wide environmental dilemma.




Photo credits

Topmost photo: Industrial pollution on a busy freight rail line by Johntarantino 1: . CC-By-Share Alike 3.0 licene

Retiro Park by Carlos Delgado at . License: CC-BY-Share Alike 3.0