A Global Emergency: The Largest Cause of Death In The World Is Being Ignored

UPDATE:  Our voices are being heard at the U.N.  Our call to #SpotlightPollution in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is making a difference. We’ve received 26 letters of support from governments, agencies, NGOs & universities. As a result, the zero draft of the SDGs released in late June has expanded the language on pollution to include “water and soil.”  

The Open Working Group  (OWG) met for the 13th time in July and continues its discussion of pollution as part of the post-2015 goals.

But it is not over. We need to ensure that pollution remains in the final SDGs. We need to continue to #SpotlightPollution.  You can help. Sign and share this petition to help us spread the word.


It is a global emergency.

It kills about 8.4 million people a year and causes three times more deaths than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

The good news is that we know how to stop it.

The bad news is that the world seems to be turning a blind eye to its destruction.

This global killer is pollution.


New analysis of data from the World Health Organization (WHO) by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution points to pollution as the #1 cause of death in the developing world. Yet, pollution is virtually being ignored in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are currently being decided.

This week, the U.N.’s Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs is meeting in New York for its 12th session to refine and determine post-2015 goals. We are at the U.N. following it closely, working hard to make sure all voices  about pollution are heard.  It might be one of the final few opportunities we have to persuade the world to pay attention to the issue of pollution in the SDGs.

pollution3xinfoCWe are glad that support for our position is growing worldwide among countries, organizations, environmental and health experts, and other individuals.

You can help. Sign and share this petition to help us spread the word.

Since the SDGs will determine what the world pays attention to over at least the next 15 years, and how funding to poor countries is allocated, it is crucial that all aspects of pollution is addressed in the SDGs. 


Pollution:  The invisible Killer

When the U.N.’s Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs met for the 11th session in May, we became alarmed when we learned that the focus on the health impact of pollution was greatly reduced in importance in the SDGs.  In current drafts of the SDGs, pollution is mentioned only as a sub item in passing, and only air pollution is considered in the health objective.

At the recent Global Environment Facility (GEF) meeting in Mexico, pollution was also ignored. While about 1,000 people gathered to discuss climate change and biodiversity, the one event focused on pollution drew only 25 people to a side conference room for an hour.

This tendency to ignore pollution is worrying because the deaths of more than 8 million men, women and children in 2012 alone should not be an afterthought on the world’s agenda.

If the issues of poverty and sustainable development are the focus of the SDGs, pollution sits squarely in that intersection.

94% of the burden of disease from pollution falls on the poor in low- and middle-income countries that are least equipped to deal with the problem.  Because it is no longer a huge health problem in the west, we seem to have forgotten about it.  But in the poorer countries, it is the biggest cause of death of all.

“There is a reason why pollution is sometimes called the invisible killer,” says Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute. 

“While it is the single largest risk factor, unfortunately, its impact is difficult to track because health statistics measure disease, not pollution.”

“Pollution causes diseases like cancers, lung infections, and heart disease amongst others. Hospitals don’t measure what caused those diseases. But contaminated water, soil and air result in millions of additional diseases and deaths.”

“These are deaths we can avoid, if we prioritize addressing pollution.”


The Past, Present and Future

While climate change needs to be addressed to preserve our future, pollution cannot be ignored because it concerns our present.

For solutions, we just need to look at our past.

Cities in Europe and the U.S. that were once cloaked in pollution are now clean and livable because we have low-cost, workable solutions. We just need to apply these solutions to the developing world.  Poor countries need access to that expertise and funding to implement them.  And the SDGs will allow us to do that.

Strengthening the focus on pollution in the SDGs will force this global health crisis from the shadows into the spotlight so that it will no longer be known as the invisible killer.

In the poorest villages and cities across the world, many of the deaths from pollution are not noticed by anyone except the victim’s families.

Often, the poisoned poor often do not understand that their community is polluted, and they do not know why their children are dying.

Senegal womenFor many like Seynabou Mbengue, it is already too late.  The woman from Ngagne Diaw, Senegal, lost five children to pollution. They all fell ill with the same symptoms, and one by one, they all died before the age of five. Her toddlers were among some 32 children known to have perished from a lead poisoning outbreak

Her story is just one of millions we should tell so the world takes notice. Pollution’s toll has too many faces to ignore.

Join the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution to demand the need to spotlight pollution in the SDGs so that this global killer will not go unchecked. We have the solution.  Now we just need the world to pay attention.

Sign and share the petition now.

(Audio) Convincing the World to Put Toxic Pollution on the Agenda for the Next Decade











We began 2014 with a message to the U.N., urging action on toxic pollution at the Seventh Session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

“The SDGs will set the post-2015 global development agenda,” says Rachael Vinyard, Director of Strategy and Development for Blacksmith Institute, which serves as Secretariat for the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP).

“They will determine what issues get funded in the coming 10 to 15 years. So, it is critical that the world’s countries agree that chemicals, waste and toxic pollution should be a focus for the next decade and that solving these issues is key to achieving sustainable development and protecting human health.”

To make the case, Blacksmith advisor Karti Sandilya and Blacksmith founder Richard Fuller spoke on behalf of the GAHP about the connection between pollution and poverty, and global scale of the problem.

About 200 million people around the world in developing countries are exposed to toxic pollution, chemicals and waste… at levels several times what the U.S. EPA and other regulatory agencies consider safe for humans. To some extent this is the unintended consequence of globalization.  We’ve shifted manufacturing to lower-cost locations but not always with the adequate pollution controls you have in the developed world.  And as you can expect, most of these toxic hotspots are in slum localities.  Poor neighborhoods.  Never leafy suburbs. So it is also a question of poverty reduction. Most of the 200 million people affected are poor people. — Karti Sandilya, speaking to the U.N. on January 6, 2014.  Listen and share his presentation below.

Blacksmith will follow up on SDG negotiations over the course of six meetings to take place between March and July 2014 before the Open Working Group is due to present their proposal to the General Assembly later this year.


Roadmap For Pollution Cleanup in Latin America

A new report provides a roadmap that can be used to accelerate pollution cleanup in Latin America.  With input from experts from seven Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay) and the U.S., the report examines environmental remediation laws and regulations that have proven to be particularly effective, and distills the findings into six governing principles that can be used as a model throughout Latin America for further refinement and discussion as environmental remediation laws are implemented, fine-tuned, and modified.

“In the U.S., the passage of what’s known as the Superfund program was what triggered cleanup. Even then, it took years of fine-tuning and modification to come up with best practices that worked. This report will help accelerate the process for Latin American countries. With effective regulations, cleanup of toxic pollution can happen faster, and more lives will be saved,” says Bret Ericson, Blacksmith’s Program Director for the Toxic Sites Identification Program.

The report is currently being made available to stakeholders across Latin America.

The time is right for a report like this. Countries in Latin America are very eager to do something about toxic pollution. They all seem to be moving towards enacting or improving regulations related to the cleanup of contaminated sites,” notes Sandra Gualtero, Blacksmith’s Program Director for Latin America.

[Read more, download the report “Regulatory Best Practices for Remediation of Legacy Toxic Contamination,” or click the images on the right to download English and Spanish versions]

The report was conducted by the Vance Center and commissioned by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP –a collaborative body supported by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission, the UN and other agencies and countries). Blacksmith serves as Secretariat for the GAHP

The six governing principles are: (Read full descriptions of the six principals in the report at www.gahp.net)

1) Create clear numeric guidelines for establishing that a site is contaminated
Although contaminated sites are often defined as sites where pollution is present at levels that may present a threat to human health and the environment, it is useful to enact regulations that specifically define what those levels are, so that sites with contamination at or above those levels can be readily identified as candidates for further investigation and remediation, if necessary based on the risk of exposure of vulnerable populations.

2) Utilize commercial triggers to identify contaminated sites
Evaluation of historic contamination should be required when project proponents are applying for facility permits (or modifications to existing permits), when industrial facilities are being bought and sold, and when industrial facilities are being shut down. These commercial triggers will result in the identification of contaminated sites at a time when commercial activity is taking place and funding for investigation and remediation is most likely to be available.

3) Create incentives for voluntary remediation
Laws and regulations should encourage private parties to come forward on a voluntary basis to address legacy contamination on sites that they own and operate, or on sites that they are thinking about acquiring.

4) Create a clear and efficient remediation process
One of the most significant barriers to environmental cleanup is the uncertainty surrounding applicable cleanup standards, the complexity of the process, and the involvement of multiple governmental agencies with actually or potentially conflicting jurisdiction. Experience has shown that published cleanup standards, a simple process for engagement with the government, and clear delineations of which agency has jurisdiction over a particular cleanup will encourage increased private sector participation.

5) Provide meaningful opportunities for public review and comment
Environmental remediation regulations and practices often benefit from input from members of the business community who will be called upon to effectuate cleanups and also by members of the community who live in close proximity to contaminated sites. Site remediation plans may also be more pragmatic and tailored to actual risk if they are subject to prior public review and comment.

6) Develop effective mechanisms to address abandoned sites
Sites that are not subject to commercial activity or voluntary remediation can be the most troublesome from a governmental perspective. Governments should consider creating a registry of such sites so that they can be identified for investigation and evaluated as candidates for future remediation. Sites should be prioritized for cleanup based on a clear methodology established by the government to address those that pose the greatest risk first.

Global Alliance Pushes Help for Poisoned Poor in European Parliament

How do we begin to solve life-threatening problems facing the world’s poisoned poor? Some of the world’s leading voices came together for a seminar in Brussels this October to discuss the issue.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) joined forces with Member of European Parliament Michele Rivasi to organize the gathering in collaboration with the World Bank, the Health and Environment Alliance and the European Cancer Leagues. The seminar put a spotlight on global health and explored opportunities to reduce impacts from chemicals, mining and industry.

Mr. Li Yong, the director general of UNIDO, delivered opening remarks to representatives from the European Parliament and dozens of organizations and agencies.

“Europe has always been a generous supporter of issues in the developing world, and we count them as solid partners in the GAHP’s international alliance,” says Richard Fuller, president of Blacksmith Institute, which serves as secretariat for the GAHP.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

The Poisoned Poor – Global Alliance Highlights Invisible Sufferers

Agbogbloshie_Ghana_girls in wheelbarrow (1)Who does toxic pollution affect the most? A global alliance has come together to issue the first comprehensive report of pollution’s impact on this invisible demographic — the poisoned poor.

“The world’s poorest people routinely face the highest risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals due to their occupations, living conditions, lack of knowledge about safe handling practices, limited access to uncontaminated food and drinking water, and the fact that they often live in countries where regulatory, health, and education systems are weak…,” notes Veerle Vandeweerd, Director, Environment and Energy Group, UNDP.

The Poisoned Poor: Toxic Chemicals Exposures in Low- and Middle-Income Countries was produced by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), which includes the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the European Commission, UNDP, UNIDO and other agencies and governments.

Among the document’s key findings about the poisoned poor:

  • As many as 200 million people are affected.
  • The amount of disease caused by toxic exposures is similar to that of malaria or outdoor air pollution.
  • The majority of acutely toxic sites are caused by local business, many of them artisanal or small-scale. Surprisingly, international companies are rarely implicated.
  • The impact of these diseases, and the commensurate loss in economic capacity, is enormous.
  • Aside from the obvious health benefits, solving these problems usually promotes, rather than inhibits, economic growth.
  • Interventions to mitigate these toxic exposures while protecting livelihoods have proven to be manageable.

Download the one-page summary or full report here (in English, French, Spanish and Chinese).

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct Newsletter

Guide To Lead Cleanup Now Available; First in Series of Global Remediation Guides

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) has released a technical guide focused on the containment of lead, one of the world’s worst pollutants. It is the first in a planned series of guides on best practices in global remediation.

Produced by GAHP’s Technical Advisory Group, which consists of experts in the field, including Blacksmith Technical Advisory Board, the guides provide a valuable framework to help those implementing cleanup projects in countries where relevant regulations and institutional controls are still being established and where there is limited practical expertise in remediation.

“These guides help to pass the experience gained in industrialized countries on remediation projects over several decades to those who are just beginning new programs. By sharing these resources, the GAHP hopes to make remediation easier and encourage more cleanup worldwide,” says David Hanrahan, Blacksmith’s Principal Technical Advisor and Convenor of the TAG at the GAHP.

The lead guide, for example, sets out the criteria for disposing of the toxic material in an engineered facility, based on approved approaches and practices internationally, which can be followed locally.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Pollution cleanup gets serious in Indonesia

Meeting in Indonesia

Pollution is finally getting official attention in Indonesia

You know that a government is getting serious about something when there are official workshops and conferences.  We are glad to report that last month, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment hosted a meeting and panel discussion about hazardous waste which attracted over 500 participants, including representatives from the chemical and waste industries, and other businesses and government departments that deal with the production, collection, transportation, and recycling of toxic waste.

While we have been working in Indonesia for some years now, this was the first workshop that the Ministry has conducted with a focus on the cleanup of contaminated sites. This means that the issue of toxic pollution is now getting official recognition, and that is key to getting things done. All this follows Indonesia’s membership in the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), for which Blacksmith serves as secretariat.

We attended the workshop, which took place on the island of Batam, to deliver a presentation on toxic hotspots, public health, strategies and technologies. The goal was to let all Indonesian stakeholders know about the resources available through the GAHP. We also wanted to showcase some of continuing work that we have been doing in Indonesia to combat mercury contamination from artisanal  gold mining and lead contamination from used car battery recycling.

Playing soccer barefoot is dangerous for these kids in Cinangka. The field is contaminated with toxic lead.

In particular, we announced the upcoming launch of our pilot cleanup in Cinangka, where we are remediating a lead-contaminated soccer field so that children in the village can play without being poisoned. The project  is being undertaken with GAHP’s help in collaboration with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment, the government of Bogor Regency, and the NGO Komite Penghapusan Bensin Bertimbel.

Masnellyarti Hilman, the Deputy Minister for Hazardous Substances, Hazardous Wastes and Solid Waste Management acknowledged that the project in Cinangka would encourage better management of toxic and hazardous waste across Indonesia. She further stated that they would follow up on the 150 toxic hotspots that GAHP has identified in Indonesia through Blacksmith’s Toxic Sites Identification Program.