San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San José's air among cleanest of Latin American cities

If the air seems relatively clear in Costa Rica’s capital, it is. The World Health Organization (WHO) puts San José in fourth place in terms of air quality among Latin American cities.

The Latin American city with the cleanest air is Salvador, Brazil, followed by Cali, Colombia and Guadalajara, Mexico. Still, only Salvador’s air has pollution levels below the WHO’s recommended average of 19 micrograms per cubic meter.

On the other end of the ranking, the most polluted air in Latin America is in Cochabamba, Bolivia, followed by Lima, Peru, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Monterrey, Mexico.

The WHO’s Ambient Air Pollution in Cities database ranks cities based on the annual mean concentration of particulate matter — including dust, ash, soot and pollen — in the outdoor air. Nearly 1,600 cities in 91 countries are included in the database.

On a global level, people in Vancouver, Canada breathe the cleanest air of any urban center. Two Australian cities, Melbourne and Sydney, follow Vancouver, while Ottawa, Canada has the fourth best urban air.

Four Indian cities have the worst air quality in the world, according to the WHO database: New Delhi, Patna, Gwalior and Raipur.

Ambient Air Pollution in Cities, 2014

Latin America

Cleanest air

  1. Salvador (Brazil)
  2. Cali (Colombia)
  3. Guadalajara (Mexico)
  4. San José (Costa Rica)
  5. Grande Vitoria (Brazil)
  6. Buenos Aires (Argentina)
  7. Campinas (Brazil)
  8. Curitiba (Brazil)
  9. Montevideo (Uruguay)
  10. Quito (Ecuador)

Most polluted air

  1. Cochabamba (Bolivia)
  2. Lima (Perú)
  3. Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
  4. Monterrey (Mexico)
  5. Toluca (Mexico)
  6. Guatemala City (Guatemala)
  7. Tegucigalpa (Honduras)
  8. Belo Horizonte (Brazil)
  9. Medellín (Colombia)
  10. Bogotá (Colombia)


Cleanest air

  1. Vancouver (Canada)
  2. Melbourne (Australia)
  3. Sydney (Australia)
  4. Ottawa (Canada)
  5. Nagoya (Japan)
  6. Shizuoka (Japan)
  7. Brisbane (Australia)
  8. Sendai (Japan)
  9. Stockholm (Sweden)
  10. Porto (Portugal)

Most polluted air

  1. New Delhi (India)
  2. Patna (India)
  3. Gwalior (India)
  4. Raipur (India)
  5. Karachi (Pakistan)
  6. Peshawar (Pakistan)
  7. Rawalpindi (Pakistan)
  8. Ahmedabad (India)
  9. Lucknow (India)
  10. Kanpur (India)
Contact L. Arias at

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Ken Morris

Don’t count on it. This from the methods section of the report:

“Stations characterized as particular ‘hot spots’ . . . were not included. . . . Omitting them may have led to an underestimation of the mean air pollution levels of a city.”

Additionally, San José was defined as the greater metropolitan area, which includes many suburbs some distance from traffic-clogged roads. It’s well known that air quality varies a lot by specific location. An average for the GMA is meaningless if you’re at a bus stop on a busy street.

Also these data come from the same government that almost annually doesn’t get around to reporting fecal contamination at the beaches until the tourist season closes–and more generally a government that tries to present itself as environmentalist.

Not saying that the government is lying or that comparisons like these are of no value, only that it doesn’t hurt to be a little suspicious.

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