Air Pollution in Cairo – A Struggle Through the World’s Most Polluted City

Written By: The Planet D

People smoke a lot in Cairo. When we asked our guide Maha of Memphis Tours how many people smoke in the city? She replied “90%, that’s why we have short lives.”

Mix all the smokers in Cairo with it having the world’s worst air pollution it’s no wonder that Maha stated that the average life expectancy in Egypt is 60.

It is said that living in Cairo is the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes a day. Between the actual cigarette smoking and the air pollution, our lungs didn’t have a chance.

Air Pollution in Cairo

pollution in cairo
Hazy sky of Cairo from Pollution

You would think that if you stayed at a 5-star hotel in Cairo, you could sneak away from all toxic air, car exhaust, and cigarette smoke.

We have stayed in Cairo at both cheap guesthouses. we’ve camped on the outskirts of the city and have been fortunate enough to enjoy 5-star hotels in Cairo.

But each time we travel to Cairo, we developed terrible coughs, and can never escape the pollution. I can only imagine how the local residents feel day in day out.

About Cairo’s Air Pollution

Cairo has a population of 20,901,000 people. It is the most populous city in the Middle East and it is the most polluted city on earth.

The traffic is unrelenting. We cycled through Cairo in 2008 and I developed such bad lung congestion, it stayed with me all the way through Ethiopia! (23 days later)

cycling cairo dave and deb
The start of our cycling trip at the Pyramids

The mix of exhaust, manufacturing, and power plants with low standards has contributed to the low air quality.

But what people don’t realize is the sand and desert dust adds to the pollution amplifying the bad air quality. These factors all contribute to putting Cairo as having the lowest ambient air quality in the world.

Noise Pollution

But that’s not all. Cairo also has terrible noise pollution. It is considered the third loudest city in the world after Delhi, India and Guangzhou, China.

When cycling through Cairo, the honking of cars horns, engine brakes of trucks, and constant construction took its toll.

At night we couldn’t sleep between the dogs barking, the street noise of people shouting and yes, the horns continue to hong well into the wee hours of the morning.

Light Pollution in Cairo

light pollution cairo egypt

When staying at an expensive hotel, you can close the light blocking curtains and go to sleep.

But Cairo has the worst light pollution in the world as well. If you live in the city, you will never see the night sky as Cairo has a light index of 85 times brighter than the sky.

It is one thing to draw the curtains in a luxury hotel, but think of the people living in Cairo suffering from sleep deprivation.

Between the noise, air quality and light pollution, it’s no wonder that the median death rate is so low.

As a tourist in Cairo I have suffered from severe chest colds with each visit. My heart aches for those who have to live in the city day in day out.

Sadly, it is the cities that have the highest poverty rate that seem to suffer the most from pollution.

Poverty In Cairo

cairo poverty

We feel for the people living in Cairo’s pollution each day and have visited projects in Cairo to see the good work that outsiders are trying to do.

It was an eye-opener to see just how much people struggle to have running water. We joined Plan Canada to see behind the scenes of projects in Cairo and visited communities around the city.

Whether it be clean water, a playground or a school, Plan Canada searches for where the aid is needed most and provides the necessary tools to help.

Our first stop was a youth community center.

An Inner City School in Cairo

What used to be a polluted pool of water surrounded by garbage and full of disease is now a clean tiled playground where children can safely play football and ping pong while interacting with other children in the community.

Our next stop was located in the poorest neighbourhood of Cairo. The streets were made of dirt, littered with garbage and the buildings were falling down.

But as we approached the school, we were greeted by smiling, playful children who definitely give hope for the future.

With computers, school desks, and a playground provided along with training programs for teachers there is aid getting to those who need it.

Cairo is gigantic. It’s polluted and many of these kids will never see a starry sky. But with school programs, they have a chance through field trips to see other parts of Cairo. It can be a real inspiration for them.

House and Communities

Community Tap in Cairo, Egypt

Next, we moved on to see some houses and communities that have been provided with plumbing, clean running water, and toilets.

Until now, people had to walk distances just to have a drink of water. Now they have a legal sanitation system.

Our final stop was a business set up through micro-finance programs. Struggling families can apply for a loan to start their own business they have 24 months at a very low-interest rate to pay that back.

People who otherwise would never be able to finance a project themselves are now given the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

Cairo as a Tourist

The Sheesha Bar at our Hotel is Beautiful but polluted

Did I tell you a lot of people smoke in Cairo?

We wanted to enjoy our hotel’s ammenities, but everywhere we went people were chain smoking.

The sheesha bar outside by the pool of our hotel was going strong, the smoking section in the restaurant seeped into the non-smoking area sectioned off by an invisible line, and the lobby was filled with men in suits chain-smoking while they sat in lavish chairs looking important.

Even our room was smoky. I would think that even smokers would find it to be too much.

When booking a room in Cairo, be sure to request a non-smoking floor.

When we first checked in to our five-star resort at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo, we were put on a smoking floor. Our room reeked of cigarettes.

After two days, we couldn’t take it anymore. We woke up each morning with a headache and congestion.

When we asked to change rooms we found out that there was a non-smoking floor. We were elated to move. Unfortunately for us, nobody abides by the smoking rules in Cairo and it was just as smoky on the non-smoking floor as it was on the smoking floor.

The smoke seeped into our room. I turned off the air conditioner thinking that it was coming through the vents but it didn’t help.

I opened the window to let some fresh air in, but unfortunately, Cairo is so polluted so it made things worse. Plus, with the window open you can barely hear yourself think with all the honking going on outside.

How to Survive the Pollution in Cairo

cairo as a tourist pollution

If you are going to Cairo, be sure to pack a mask. Now that COVID has become a part of everyone’s lives, it’s not so odd to wear a mask. And a good mask will help filter out the dust particles, pollution, and cigarette smoke.

Add noise-canceling headphones with soft music and I always carry peppermint oil and tiger balm. They open up the sinus passages and calm coughs and colds. Allergy eye drops are a good idea as well.

If you are arm yourself with these items, you may just feel comfortable exploring the awe-inspiring sites of Cairo.

So the next time you are haggling over a few dollars, remember, many of these crafts are hand made over 15 days by talented and hard-working families. We know we will think of it next time.

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

Leave a Comment

18 thoughts on “Air Pollution in Cairo – A Struggle Through the World’s Most Polluted City”

  1. Hi.. Planning to shift to Cairo with husband, who is already posted there for the last one year. But very concerned about the air pollution and smoking in public places. However, I stay in Delhi which is as bad as Cairo even though very green. Feel I am going from frying pan to fire.
    I fail to understand why are more trees not grown in Cairo as the brown of desert is very depressing. Also I was appalled at the use of plastic there. The consciousness towards environment is grossly missing .

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  2. That’s funny that they try to look important while they smoke, I can totally see that haha. I will say that pool looks amazingly refreshing.

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    • I am not sure if they are trying to look more important (those are just my observations) but I do think it is a status thing. When we stayed in a small guesthouse in Cairo a few years ago, people didnt’ seem to smoke as much. But the businessmen really went overboard in the hotel and during the conference. It was unbearable.

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  3. So unfortunate! I probably couldn’t deal with all the smoke and would have a great excuse to hang out in the spa 🙂

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  4. Ouch! That was a really, really rough time! Cairo is indeed SO polluted. I often say that the air is brown there. And it is! The last time I went a few months ago we arrived at night and literally all of the cars in front of us on the highway were slightly obscured by a curtain of smog. Just feet in front of our faces! It is THAT polluted. It may be disgusting, but I really like that city. The people are wonderfully friendly, the sights and the simple challenge of getting around will keep you plenty busy and now its spot in the history books as the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution just has me fascinated. I’m going back in a few weeks and am really looking forward to it.

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  5. Ouch! That was a really, really rough time! Cairo is indeed SO polluted. I often say that the air is brown there. And it is! The last time I went a few months ago we arrived at night and literally all of the cars in front of us on the highway were slightly obscured by a curtain of smog. Just feet in front of our faces! It is THAT polluted. It may be disgusting, but I really, really like that city. The people are wonderfully friendly, the sights and the simple challenge of getting around will keep you plenty busy for days and now its spot in the history books as the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution just has me fascinated. I’m going back in a few weeks and am really looking forward to it.

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    • Hi Sabina, I agree. The people of Cairo are so friendly and we have made sure to write positive posts on the country and the city. I don’t want to damper people’s opinions of Cairo because it is a city worth visiting. They just need to change their smoking habits. I initially started out writing a review of the Intercontinental, but I kept finding myself coming back to the smoke. Not being able to escape it in two rooms really put a damper on our time there. We had a much better time in the small guest house we stayed at 3 years earlier downtown. The rich businessmen really seem to go overboard on the smoking and the high end hotels seem to cater to it. At the mall we had to laugh, a guy was smoking right under a no-smoking sign. What was funny was that there was one of those ashtrays that are filled with sand, directly under the sign. What’s up with that?
      Have a great time when you go back, it really is a special place.

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  6. We’re a Canadian couple who just finished a 10 day Egypt trip and found the smoke and air pollution tough, too.

    It was impossible to enjoy the common areas (restaurants, lounge, lobby) at our hotel in Cairo because so many people were smoking, but at least our room was a refuge from the smoke!

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    • I’m glad you could find refuge in your room. I think that was the toughest part for me, my room reeked as much as the rest of the hotel. Some other people in our group said that their rooms weren’t so bad, but then others said that theirs were bad so maybe it is just luck of the draw.

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  7. Ahh man…The one saving grace is that you had spent alot of time in Egypt before…There is nothing worse than being sick while travelling or even worse while flying!

    Hope you are all feeling better now! I can see how that spa was a life saver!

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    • Yeah, at least we had been before so we didn’t feel like we were missing out too much. Memphis tours did a great job taking us to different attractions though so it would have been nice if I were up for the challenge. Oh well, sometimes travel can’t all be perfect. I would have been really upset though if it was my first time there. Egypt is so awesome that you want to be at the top of your game to take it all in.

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  8. I’m so sorry you guys were sick! I have to say, that as someone who smokes, I still find it appalling that so many places smoke indoors here in Romania… even in places where people are eating too! I also keep all of my friends and other human beings in mind… it’s my nasty habit, why should they suffer too? I hope to quit soon, so being surrounded by it all won’t help either! Hope you are feeling better now!

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    • Hi Dayna, I think it was amplified because I wasn’t feeling well but yes, it sucked to keep walking into a wall of smoke everywhere in the hotel. It was in the lobby, it was outside the conference room, it was outside our door in the hallways and in the restaurants….it was just too much for me.

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    • I definitely wasn’t fun to be around either. Every time I got in the van I just went to sleep, I think the year caught up to me. I’ve been very unhealthy this year and since coming home we’ve focused on living clean and getting active. Already feeling much better but not back to prime.

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