Pure Earth pollution experts from around the world recently gathered in New York to share updates on the progress being made solving pollution problems in their home communities and in countries spread out over five continents.
The event, held at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, offered Pure Earth friends and supporters in New York a chance to hear directly from the frontlines.
If you missed it, below are some highlights, or watch the full video here.
Pollution is not well recognized, but has an enormous impact
Pure Earth President Richard Fuller opened the dialogue reminding the audience about the scope of the problem – that pollution is the largest environmental cause of premature death and disease in the world today.
On top of that, he told the audience that additional research done since the publication of the groundbreaking Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, which Fuller co-chaired, showed that 1/3 of all children on the planet have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies.
Mexico: Lead-free pottery is key
Our Mexico-based team member, Daniel Estrada, who oversees our programs in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, began by asking the audience if they liked Mexican food. Of course, every hand in the room went up. His next question got the exact opposite response.
“Raise your hands if you like lead in your food.”
That was the point Daniel was trying to make. In Mexico, “we eat a lot of lead because of pottery.”
How much of the traditional pottery produced in Mexico (and used in many homes and restaurants) is lead free? Watch the video to find out, and listen to Daniel tell the story of Baby X, who was born with a blood lead level of 40 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL)! The CDC recommends health intervention at levels above 5 µg/dL–the newborn Baby X was eight times over that limit.
Brazil: South To south cooperation
In Brazil, Daniel explained how they encountered the same problem with leaded pottery. He showed the audience a plate that was the first lead-free pottery made by a community in Brazil because of a “south to south cooperation.” Daniel explained, “It was Mexican technology that was brought to Brazil.”
Peru: “We have a rainforest, and then we don’t.”
Daniel closed his update with a report on the first restoration project of rainforest that was destroyed by artisanal gold mining. Daniel described how Pure Earth is training gold miners in safe, mercury-free mining methods and working with local organizations to restore the degraded land.
“Most importantly, we can see we are bringing hope to the people. Look at this picture,” said Daniel pointing to a picture of a man on the Pure Earth reforestation team. “He is happy. He has hope. He sees something that he saw that has been destroyed. He sees how it changing.”
Indonesia: Empowering Women Miners
Based in Indonesia, Budi Susilorini has been helping artisanal and small-scale gold miners reduce their use of mercury since 2009. Recently, she began working closely with a group of women miners on the island of Kalimantan, who have taken the skills they learned from Pure Earth and are determined to expand it into a mini empire.
The group of ten women have formed a cooperative to process gold without using mercury, incorporated book keeping so that all the gold they produce is well documented, and is now connected to ethnically-minded jewelers who are willing to pay 20% more for the women’s mercury-free gold.
Philippines: “Is this a river or is this ground?”
Larah Ortega Ibañez, who oversees work in her home country of the Philippines, talked about her work on one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world — the Marilao-Meycauayan-Obando river system, which runs through Manila. HSBC Philippines, a corporate partner, has been supporting Pure Earth’s cleanup work in the country with employee volunteers and financial support. Larah described how the river at times becomes almost solid with trash, and how Pure Earth is helping fish farmers in the area.
In 2017, Pure Earth cleaned up a town in Pampanga, in the Philippines, where a lead smelter had been operating for 20 years, providing jobs but also polluting the community. Larah described the blood lead levels of the smelter workers. As you watch the video, keep in mind that while there is no safe level of lead, the level of concern is just 5 micrograms per deciliter.
India: Poisoned schools
Pure Earth advisor Karti Sandilya does not live in India any more, but he is continuing his fight to solve pollution in his home country from his base in Washington, D.C. Why is he so dedicated? Because India, he explains, is possibly the most polluted country in the world.
Children are the most vulnerable victims of pollution the world over, but in India, it is even more tragic because often their schools are where they are getting poisoned. In India, a main source of lead contamination is the recycling of used lead-acid (car) batteries. And because many of these industries are located in densely populated neighborhoods, many operate near residential areas and elementary schools.
Cameroon: Empowering local experts
Elena Rahona reported on the upcoming cleanup of two pesticide-polluted sites in Cameroon. This, she explained, was the culmination of three years of work in which dozens of polluted sites were identified and then ranked according to the severity of their threat to residents. Of those, the Pure Earth team narrowed down the list to two sites that needed to be immediately addressed. But what Elena also wanted to emphasize was how the project builds local capacity by having Pure Earth’s technical advisors train local experts and implement the cleanup plan together.
Senegal: 10 years later – happiness and health
Elena also gave a moving update about a woman we first met in Senegal ten years ago. The woman had lost five of her young children to lead poisoning because she was recycling used lead-acid (car) batteries. Find out how she and her surviving children are doing.
Mongolia: Looking for a needle in a pile of hay
Over 100,000 people in Mongolia work in artisanal gold mining, with many using mercury, even though mercury is banned.
“How to identify places that are contaminated with mercury? It’s much more difficult than finding a needle in a pile of hay,” said Petr Sharov, Pure Earth’s regional director for Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. “Who will tell that they are using mercury? No one will tell.”
One solution? To have miners working with miners. Petr explained how Pure Earth brought in Filipino miners to train passionate Mongolians miners in mercury-free techniques, and how those miners are now training other miners.
Tajikistan: DDT was the solution to everything
“Everywhere in Soviet Union, you dig a little soil… you sample it, you will find it (DDT). It is literally everywhere,” Petr explained.
People in Tajikistan did not understand the danger. Watch Petr describe how families would even move into pesticide warehouses and live there despite the overpowering odor. One family would only use their house in the winter when it was too cold to stay outside.
Armenia: Lead from the 13th and 14th century
Talk about a toxic legacy. Petr closed the session describing Pure Earth’s cleanup of lead contamination at a historic Armenian monastery, a popular tourist destination located on top of a former copper smelter from the 13th and 14th centuries.
For the first spring in a millennia, the community and visitors were not exposed to dangerous levels of lead.