The burden of disease and death attributable to environmental pollution is becoming a public health challenge worldwide, especially in developing countries. The kidney is vulnerable to environmental pollutants because most environmental toxins are concentrated by the kidney during filtration. Given the high mortality and morbidity of kidney disease, environmental risk factors and their effect on kidney disease need to be identified. In this Review, we highlight epidemiological evidence for the association between kidney disease and environmental pollutants, including air pollution, heavy metal pollution and other environmental risk factors. We discuss the potential biological mechanisms that link exposure to environmental pollutants to kidney damage and emphasize the contribution of environmental pollution to kidney disease. Regulatory efforts should be made to control environmental pollution and limit individual exposure to preventable or avoidable environmental risk. Population studies with accurate quantification of environmental exposure in polluted regions, particularly in developing countries, might aid our understanding of the dose-response relationship between pollutants and kidney diseases.