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Higher air pollution in wealthy districts of most low- and middle-income countries


Air pollution is a major threat to health and the dangers are particularly acute in low- and middle-income countries where levels of exposure tend to be high and adaptation resources are often limited. However, little is known about how the burden of pollution is spread across different income groups within these countries. Understanding who is impacted by air pollution is important for designing equitable policy solutions. In this study, we used data providing high-resolution wealth estimates for more than 100 countries, combined with high-resolution estimates of air pollution, to estimate how wealth is correlated with ambient air pollution in low- and middle-income countries around the world. We found that within countries, on average, air pollution is positively correlated with wealth, but the relationship is highly heterogeneous across countries. Countries with primarily anthropogenic sources of air pollution seem to have the strongest positive correlations between pollution and wealth. The fact that air pollution and wealth are both disproportionately high in urban areas where economic activity is largely concentrated seems to drive this relationship. The spatial correlation between pollution and areas of economic opportunity highlights the urgent need to develop policies that reduce air pollution to promote more equitable economic growth.

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Fig. 1: Pollution is higher in wealthier areas.
Fig. 2: Variation in correlation between wealth and pollution across countries.
Fig. 3: Pollution, wealth and urbanicity patterns in West Africa and South Asia.
Fig. 4: Heterogeneity within cities.

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Data availability

All of the raw data used in this study are publicly available, with links to the original data sources provided in the Methods or following list: RWI data:; EDGAR data:; URCA data:; pollution data:; elevation data:; GHSL data: Data to replicate the findings of this study are available via the Harvard Dataverse at

Code availability

The code to replicate the results is available via the Harvard Dataverse at


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We thank G. Englander, B. de la Cuesta, members of ECHOLab at Stanford and participants in the 2022 TWEEDS workshop for useful comments. The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of the World Bank or the governments they represent.

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A.P.B. and S.H.-N. jointly designed the study, collected the data, conducted the analysis and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to A. Patrick Behrer.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Yuhan Huang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary text, Figs. 1–21 and Tables 1–5.

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Behrer, A.P., Heft-Neal, S. Higher air pollution in wealthy districts of most low- and middle-income countries. Nat Sustain 7, 203–212 (2024).

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