Focus on Research in Developing World: “We are missing the full picture”


(NOTE:  Deadline Jan. 12, 2015 to apply for research grants.  See below)

haz matOver the past few years, Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth has embarked on a broad effort to expand research and understanding about the issue of toxic pollution, especially its damaging impact in low and middle-income countries, where pollution is the largest killer. Without data and information, one of the world’s biggest global problems will remain invisible.


“Although toxic pollution is one of the biggest global threats, cleanup has been slow partly because there has been a lack of data to chronicle the scope and reach of problem. And this void of knowledge is greatest in poor and middle-income countries. Without proper data and studies, the toxic pollution problems plaguing these nations cannot be solved.”

— Richard Fuller, president of Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth.

“Some scientists are at a disadvantage – they have no funds to support the write up of their research… As a result, not enough is written and published about the effects of toxic pollution in low and middle income countries.”

“… we are missing the full picture, missing local information. Research is going on but it is not known among funders of the world.”

— Sandy Page-Cook, Managing Editor of the Journal of Health and Pollution, in Teaching Scientists in Developing Countries to WriteHuffington Post, Dec. 2014

Crucial Pipeline

Blacksmith/Pure Earth is creating a crucial pipeline for this information to reach organizations like the World Bank, European aid agencies and others who have the vast funding needed to deal with threats to human health from pollution.

Our efforts have allowed us to paint the clearest picture to date of pollution’s devastating hold on the poisoned poorMore than one in seven deaths in the world are pollution-related. Here’s a snapshot of pollution’s global toll.

Here are three ways we are continuing to close this knowledge gap:

1) Small Research Grants 2015: Call for Proposals, Deadline Jan. 12, 2015

Calling all researchers and scientists, there is still time to apply for these grants – deadline January 12, 205.  The grants are intended mainly to support researchers in their effort to write up their findings for publication in an international, peer-reviewed journal. Research work should focus on the scope, effects and remediation of toxic pollution in poor countries.  Click on the link above to get details.

2) Teaching Scientists in Developing Countries to Write for International Journals

To date, over 100 researchers, including Kenyan scientist Faridah Hussein Were, have taken the free online course developed by Blacksmith/Pure Earth in collaboration with AuthorAID, to help researchers and scientists from low and middle-income countries improve their technical writing and editing skills with an eye to getting their views and findings in major international journals. The course will increase from five to ten weeks next year.

3) Journal of Health and Pollution Gives Voice to Researchers from Underrepresented Countries

Published by Blacksmith/Pure Earth, the Journal of Health and Pollution (JH&P) is the only journal focused exclusively on low and middle-income countries. The online journal of peer reviewed research and news is an important pipeline of crucial data and analysis of this global problem in countries that are often underrepresented in major studies. In 2015, the journal will enter its fifth year.


Pollution: 17 Facts That Might Surprise You

SW IN-2306 8223 copyThink you know about pollution? Here are 15 facts about toxic pollution that you might not have known about.

  • Pollution is the #1 cause of death in the developing world.  It kills about 10 million people a year.
  • Pollution causes three times more deaths than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. 
  • Pollution is one of the biggest global threats. Toxic pollution affects over 200 million people worldwide, with tens of thousands poisoned each year.
  • Toxic pollution is one of the most underreported global problems despite the huge number of people affected. This is partly due to a lack of data. However, recent research has offered a clearer understanding of the true toll of pollution and added to the growing body of information about the problem. (Read more about the Poisoned Poor)
  • Children are particularly vulnerable. While children under six make up only 20% of the world’s population, over 40% of the global burden of disease falls on them. More than three million children under age five die annually from environmental factors. Toxic pollution has a bigger impact on their smaller bodies, interfering with their development, inflicting damage that can last a lifetime. Children can be poisoned just by running around barefoot in their homes or villages.
  • The toll from pollution is comparable to that from dangerous diseases. The number of people at risk of death and disease from toxic pollution is greater than those suffering from malaria and close to those afflicted by HIV/AIDS and other diseases, according to Blacksmith’s 2012 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report.
  • Pollution is one global problem that CAN BE SOLVED in our lifetime. Life-threatening pollution has already been eliminated in much of the developed world through initiatives like the Superfund in the U.S. and similar efforts in other countries. The technology and know-how to clean up toxic pollution already exists. All that is needed is resources and commitment.
  • There are a finite number of worst polluted sites in the world. Blacksmith’s Global Toxic Sites Identification Program has assessed more than 1,600 polluted hotspots in 47 countries and identified an additional 1,000 sites for future screening, growing 
Blacksmith’s global database of polluted places. The one-of-a-kind database provides vital information about the magnitude of the problem and serves as a valuable roadmap for prioritizing these sites for global cleanup.
  • Pollution solutions are relatively low-cost. A life can be saved with as little as $42 through the removal of hazardous pollution on Blacksmith projects. $20,000 is enough to start a project that saves lives.
  • Pollution is mainly caused by small-scale informal operations rather than large multinational companies. However, demand for consumer goods from high-income countries still drive pollution activities in low-income countries.
  • Solving pollution problems usually promotes, rather than inhibits, economic growth. Solutions can increase access to valuable resources, such as more efficient recovery of lead from battery recycling, or reclamation of land in urban areas.
  • Pollution does not stop even when the source of the pollution is removed. This is called legacy pollution. The Cold War, for example, has left a toxic legacy in the form of derelict and abandoned old weapons and chemical factories. The affected population will continue to suffer unless cleanup is conducted.
  • Pollution can vastly lower life expectancy. In some of the world’s worst polluted places life expectancy can be as low as 45 years because of lung, throat and thyroid cancers.
  • Death is not the only end result. Pollution causes chronic illness, neurological damage and a range of diseases that might not kill but might incapacitate a person or result in irreversible damage. For instance, the presence of lead in children lowers I.Q. by an estimated 4-7 points for each increase of 10 μg/dL. In some of the world’s worst polluted places, babies are born with birth defects, children have lost 30 to 40 IQ points.
  • Pollution affects everyone. While pollution affects the immediate population the most, its effects are felt far and wide because of the globalized economy. In addition, some pollutants, like mercury, travel and drop into rivers and seas worldwide, poisoning the seafood supply.
  • The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) is the first international coalition of its kind dedicated to addressing the threat of toxic pollution on a global scale. The GAHP has created the world’s largest platform for coordinating resources and launching efforts and innovations to fight toxic pollution. Any low- or medium-income country can approach the GAHP for help with pollution issues.
  • Most current international programs regulate the production and use of select toxins and the trans-boundary movement of waste rather than the mitigation or remediation of existing pollution. It is a global problem that is just emerging on the international radar screen. Blacksmith is the leading organization active in toxics cleanup on a global scale.

A Shower of Toxic Lead and the Mystery of Nine Dead Cows

This is the second post from Sarita Gupta, Blacksmith’s India director, from her recent trip visiting lead smelters in India.

I work for Blacksmith Institute, which cleans up toxic pollution around the world. I never imagined sitting in my New York office that an occupational hazard would be to get showered in lead dust.

I was on a visit to three lead smelters in India, accompanying a Blacksmith expert who is helping them to assess how environmentally sound they are, and what they can do to create safer conditions for their workers as well as the surrounding communities. Our lead shower took place at smelter No. 2.

My first instinct was to flee but then I glanced at Brian Wilson, who has worked around lead for 33 years and is militant about protecting himself and anyone with him. Brian looked completely calm and did not take even a step to get out of the way of the dust shower. That was because we were all wearing masks to prevent inhalation of this toxin.

Smelter workers in general were not as well protected. We saw many in sandals whereas Brian made sure the smelter managers gave us sturdy boots to wear around the plant. There apparently aren’t many women visitors (or workers) at one plant, and they gave me the smallest shoe size in men’s, which I held up by tying the laces around my ankles. The worker who was moving ingots of finished lead from the belt and stacking them by hand a few feet away fascinated me. I imagined the 25 kg weight falling on his bare toes and finishing off his work life. Others had their mandatorily-provided face masks dangling from their necks. The masks were itchy and it was hard to breathe in the heat of the Indian summer, so it was easy to think one was immune.

Till it showered lead.

India battery recycling plant

Workers separating lead grids and paste

The shower was due to Brian asking to check the functioning of a bag house.  The worker turned the switch to BLOW instead of SUCTION. Which raised the question of training and education. Unfortunately, for a smelter owner, the training should not end with his/her plant workers.

The villagers around one plant were up in arms because nine cows had died from lead poisoning. The smelter checked the levels of its fugitive emissions from its furnace: negligible. After much investigation it was surmised that the lorries bringing used car batteries to the smelter would, after unloading, go to a pond down the road and wash out their cabs. The cows drank from that pond and got poisoned. How much the truck drivers knew about the risks of their cargo to themselves and other humans is an open question.

Indian plant ingots

The finished product: long silvery bars, coming out of molds in front of furnace. The bars are silvery and beautiful, making me want to touch them. I could see why lead has been used in cosmetics since the Romans.

While the U.S. and Europe have become wise to the dangers of lead, emerging markets have yet to wake up. All three smelters are trying to do their best to protect their workers and communities even if the standards are not what we might expect. The bigger issue in India is the number of illegal operators who break apart lead acid batteries in their back yards, dumping sulfuric acid and vast quantities of lead into the soil and air. By doing so they are compromising not just their health but condemning their children to irreparable brain and neurological damage.

The lead dust settled on our clothes and hair. On the way back to the hotel, Brian handed each of us a plastic bag and instructed us to shed the clothing immediately upon entering our rooms, seal it in the bag and keep it separate from all our other stuff until it could be washed.

If only someone was taking such care of the workers we met on this trip.