Training Women in Senegal

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Next month, Blacksmith returns to Senegal to provide livelihood training to women so that they will not have to go back to the dangerous job of backyard battery recycling–the activity that triggered the tragic lead poisoning outbreak in 2008 that killed 32 children in Thiaroye Sur Mer.

“Women should not have to choose between earning a living wage and the safety of their children,” says Kira Traore, Blacksmith’s program director for Africa. “By teaching them alternative income-generating activities, we are providing them with a long-term solution, and ensuring that they will not return to illegal battery recycling.”

Over 100 women will attend two training sessions held at the local youth center.

The first training session will focus on how to fortify grains to increase nutrition and crop yield. The women will be trained on mill processing techniques, and will have access to two mills that will be maintained by the local women’s association.

At the second training, the women will be introduced to hydroponics so they can grow crops without soil, using a hydroponics table filled with mineral nutrient solutions.  Because the water used stays within the system, this method reduces the amount of water needed, which is essential during the dry season. Hydroponics will allow the women to grow crops year round without being dependent on soil quality or weather.

These techniques will not only help the women feed their family, but also produce extra food for sale, providing them with a sustainable source of income.

Following the lead poisoning tragedy, Blacksmith conducted house-to-house cleanup (see photos) and taught villagers about the dangers of lead. Over 100 hones were cleaned, and  3000 cubic meters of contaminated soil was carted away.  Today, lead levels in the soil of the affected villages are below the U.S. standard of 400 ppm, down from 200,000 ppm measured at the height of the outbreak.

For many men and women around the world, recycling old car batteries by hand to extract lead is the one of the few ways of making a living. They recycle the batteries at home, breaking them in their backyards, smelting lead in their kitchens.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Background: Cleanup in Senegal

In March 2008, Blacksmith Institute was contacted by the Senegal Ministry of Environment following the sudden deaths of 32 children under age five in the community of Ngagne Diaw, Thiayore-Sur-Mer, located on the southern end of the Cape Vert Peninsula in Dakar. The children all died from acute lead poisoning due to constant exposure to lead dust in the air, soil and water. The source of lead was quickly determined to be the informal recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB).

Recycling lead this way was a popular way for women to supplement domestic income.  Lead was used and sold as weights to hold down fishing nets. The women would break open the batteries by hand in their backyards, and melt the lead in pots and pans in their kitchens, often with children playing nearby. Lead dust covered almost everything in their homes and community, poisoning everyone.

But children begin to die after a ‘lead-rush’ increased the exposure to children at exponential rates. A newly opened lead smelter offered $100 per day for women and children to collect and sift through lead waste. In just one hour, the women were able to earn the same daily wages as someone who worked all day in the market.

Blacksmith worked to address the emergency with a three-phase remediation strategy. The project had two distinct goals: in the short-term, to completely remove the threat of lead from Ngagne Diaw; and in the long-term, to ensure the responsible collection and recycling of used lead-acid batteries so that lead from this source is no longer a threat in Senegal. These three phases of the project were successfully completed in February 2013.

Why Are Millions of Children in Mexico Still Suffering From Lead Poisoning?

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In 1991, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico was found to have high lead levels in her blood. It launched an outcry on both sides of the border against the use of toxic lead glazes in Mexican pottery, a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

But while the flow of lead-glazed pottery into the U.S. has dramatically slowed because of an import ban, toxic wares continue to be produced and used by many families in Mexico even though there are laws preventing the use of lead glazes.

A report in the Huffington Post looks at why lead persists in Mexico, and offers a quick overview of the history of the problem, leading up to Blacksmith’s renewed effort next year to launch a major education campaign starting with potters, pottery sellers and consumers in one state.

Among the goals, the campaign will encourage potters to switch to a cheaper, lead-free alternative glaze developed by scientists at Mexican universities with support from Blacksmith and a local NGO.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Battery Recycling Done Correctly

Worker in protective gear with a one-ton chunk of lead; an ingot that will now be sold.

RSR battery recycling plant in Indianapolis

After visiting so many terrible, appalling, toxic backyard battery recyclers in the developing world, we thought we should see how batteries could be handled safely.

Last week we visited RSR Corporation’s lead-acid battery recycling plant in Indianapolis. RSR is one of the largest recyclers of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB), with three plants in the U.S., and others in Europe.

The Indianapolis facility has a reputation of being one of the best run and cleanest operations for battery recycling anywhere in the world. Bob Finn, the company’s CEO, and A J Williams, V.P. of Operations, kindly arranged to give us a tour.

The plant sits on a 30-acre site on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Over two hundred workers take thousands of used batteries each day and turn them into lead, which is sold back to battery manufacturers, for the most part. Almost all of the battery is recycled, including the plastic case.


The batteries arrive shrink-wrapped from across the country in dozens of trucks that line up waiting for their turn to unload. While they are being stored, the batteries are kept on metal trays to contain any accidental leaks.










Once inside the facility, an enormous amount of effort goes into keeping lead out of the environment, and away from workers. For a start, workers must change their street clothes when they arrive, and wear protective gear whenever they are in the plant, including masks. All these are washed daily on site. Workers take a shower when they change into their street clothes too, so that they do not carry lead back to their kids at home.

Around the plant, using protective gear is mandatory, and you even need to vacuum your work clothes when you leave some areas of the plant.

Their health results are impressive. Workers are monitored for lead levels every three months, and on average are only measuring just above 10 micrograms/dl – truly a terrific result. Workers who have less than 17 micrograms/dl are given a bonus. (OSHA calls for action when a worker’s blood lead levels reach at least 30 µg/dL).


Twelve large fans work to create a negative pressure inside the facility, so no lead dust puffs out of the place. Instead, it is all circulated through a series of filters so that nothing escapes into the environment.

Emissions to the environment are also really low as the facility has spent millions on a state-of-the-art electrostatic precipitator. This device takes almost all the lead, SO2 and other pollutants out of the stack emissions. The equipment is not mandatory for lead smelters – RSR has chosen to do this because they think it is the right thing to do. It is a source of great pride for the firm.




There are also complex pieces of equipment monitoring water effluent. The company tests all waste streams constantly, in a well-equipped laboratory with spectrometers and other gadgets.

Scott Strole (right) oversees the lab team to make sure everything is safe and clean.

The concern over pollution can be seen everywhere, from performance statistics and posters, to the attention that is paid to just keeping the floors well swept at all times.


It was an impressive visit, and we were glad to have the chance to see lead being managed safely, after so many visits to backyard smelters that looked like this…











… where people process lead waste like this..











So, how can we help battery recycling in the developing world?

No one would expect a developing country to move immediately to the kind of performance I saw at RSR overnight. But such companies serve as examples of how lead, and lead-acid batteries can be managed safely. There are lessons to be learnt here, for GAHP (Global Alliance on Health and Pollution) countries slowly moving their lead-acid battery management toward safe processes.

The solution will be gradual, moving step-by-step, country-by-country. The basic process must be:

  • Find a way to ensure batteries are only processed by formal, cleaner facilities, and incorporate incentives so that this happens with battery economics, not only with enforcement of regulations (which can be difficult, to say the least);
  • Improve those formal facilities step by step, aiming for better controls each time;
  • Clean up the legacy contaminated sites, once we can be sure they will not re-occur.

And all the time, remember why we do this. It’s for these children to be safe…











Engaging the Chinese Public in Environmental Issues

China is currently facing a wave of dissatisfaction over the state of pollution in the country with calls for greater transparency. A new Blacksmith project might just have a solution. This report is from Abby Schultz in Blacksmith’s China office:

The Blacksmith Institute is piloting a soil remediation project in Hunan Province that is giving the Chinese insight into how to engage the public in environmental issues, specifically remediation.

The project comes at a time when the Chinese public has become more aware and concerned about environmental pollution in the air, water, and soil, and as the Chinese government considers changes to the 1989 Environmental Protection Law to encourage public participation, among other things.

The purpose of this effort is to promote improved environmental governance in China, and it is being done with the European Commission and matching funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. The Chinese Research Centre for Public Policy (CRCPP) and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the China Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR-CAS) are partners.

The soil remediation project in Deng Jia Tang Village, Chenzhou City, Hunan, is the first of two pilots that will be used to show how to include the public in an environmental remediation project.

In Deng Jia Tang, 20 hectares of farmland was deserted in January 2000 after an industrial accident at a local factory producing arsenic-related products discharged toxic wastewater into the environment, contaminating the groundwater used as a drinking water source for the village.

The accident reportedly resulted in two deaths, 249 hospitalizations, and 885 people were found to have arsenic in urinary samples.

Now, residents of the village want to remediate the farmland so they can plant again. The project is engaging the public by working with local village committees and village representatives who have been asked to be part of a project stakeholder group. This group will be the main point of contact for informing the community as the project progresses.

This past spring, seven representatives of the village attended a meeting with the project team. The representatives, who have lived in Deng Jia Tang for more than 20 years, expressed a strong desire to remediate their farmland.

By involving the public in the cleanup project, local Chinese environmental officials should experience how engaging the public openly and transparently can lead to better community relations, build trust, and ultimately help the project succeed. Another objective is for other local governments to see the benefits of this approach and adopt it.

The plan in Deng Jia Tang is to use phytoremediation techniques to remove arsenic from the soil. Phytoremediation is the process of stimulating microorganisms already in the soil to speed up the transfer of toxins—arsenic in this case—into carbon dioxide.

At the meeting with the village representatives, the team explained the current status of the tainted soil, the plans for phytoremediation and how it works, and the estimated cost and timing for the project.

Creating workable methodologies for engaging the public in environmental remediation could prove useful on a national scale, where the government is considering changes to environmental law to improve transparency, emphasize the role of popular opinion, and to encourage participation by the public in environmental reviews of major construction projects, according to The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based publication.

“These amendments have been added as a direct response to the frequent outbreaks of ‘mass incidents’ or protests in recent years that are said to have been caused by a lack of ‘public supervision’ over decision making and a failure to share information,” the Observer said.

Read more about the project.

Wishing for a soccer field that does not kill

Blacksmith is launching the cleanup of a lead-contaminated soccer field in Cinangka, Indonesia, so that children in the village can play without being poisoned.

The project, starting this month, 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.

Author Damon DiMarco visited Cinangka with Blacksmith. This is what he saw. (Watch Video below)

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A suburb of Jakarta, the village of Cinangka sits on a mountaintop in west central Java. Despite its cheerful inhabitants, brightly colored houses, and blissful weather, this is one of the most polluted places in Indonesia.

Alfred Sitorous (pictured in green) works for Blacksmith’s lead abatement subcontractor in Indonesia.  He travels throughout Jakarta’s far-flung city limits to visit areas affected by lead contamination. In the photo above, Alfred talks to local children playing in the village’s lead-contaminated soccer field.   He points to their feet and chides them for for not wearing shoes. The kids love running around barefoot but they don’t realize this can be lethal. In some portions of the soccer patch, the ground they’re playing on registers over 100,000 parts per million of lead. The World Health Organization warns that soil containing more than 400 parts per million of lead can be hazardous to human health.

Alfred  is great with kids. He’s practically a big kid himself. He’ll drop to one knee and make barnyard noises — cows and chickens, pigs and cats – to call local children into a big circle and make them giggle. He’ll lead them in songs and little dances before playing a seemingly impromptu game of Who Can Put Shoes on the Fastest?

Squealing with delight, several barefoot children scamper off to retrieve the sandals they’ve kicked into ankle-high grass. Dropping to their rumps, they pull on their shoes while Alfred starts a Name Game with the remaining kids.

Alfred is clever. He didn’t choose the Name Game by accident, he did it to make a mental roster of kids who aren’t wearing shoes. He’ll take this list back to local officials who can then speak to the children’s parents, to remind them that in Cinangka, children must wear shoes if they want to grow up healthy. If they want to stay alive.

Not long ago, illegal lead smelting formed the backbone of Cinangka’s economy. Between 1983 and 2006, no less than 32 illegal smelter choked the town with black toxic clouds. The atmosphere became so lethal that guavas growing from local trees turned the color of chocolate. Birth defects became common in the local populace, with many children showing signs of mild to severe developmental problems.

In the photo, a Blacksmith associate is testing the soil in the soccer patch with a handheld X-ray Fluorescence spectrometer. The small white/gray squares seen in the foreground of this photo are battery separators half-buried in the rise on which the children stand.

Lead-acid batteries make use of materials like rubber, cellulose, glass fiber mat, and polyethylene plastic to insulate positive and negative electrodes. Cut into squares, these separators get sandwiched between the lead plates to keep them from touching each other and shorting out. Over the course of a battery’s life, the separators become saturated with sulfuric acid, lead residue, and other chemical by-products. They can be just as toxic to human beings and the environment as the lead components themselves. Sometimes worse.

This entire playground is nothing but a crude landfill for millions and millions of separators. These children cannot fathom the danger they’re in.

The readings from the spectrometer are dangerously high. These children are standing on soil that registers 49,239 parts per million of lead – more than 123 times the internationally recognized health standard established by the World Health Organization. This patch of ground also registers arsenic at 1,744 parts per million.

Related:  Pollution cleanup gets serious in Indonesia

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.

The Toxic Rice Fields of China’s Cancer Villages

Farmer Youtian He's wife and daughter near their polluted rice fields. Mrs. He and other relatives are suffering from cancer. He worries about his young daughter.

The bright green rice fields planted close to the brick-and-tile homes in Shangba, a small village in northern Guangdong Province in China, paint a tranquil, rural scene typical of China’s countryside.

What can’t be seen, and is difficult to imagine, are the heavy metals lacing the soil where the rice and sugar cane sprout. Cadmium, as well as copper, lead, zinc, iron, and arsenic have entered the soil of these agricultural fields from irrigation water polluted by the tailing pond of the Dabaoshan Mine.

The mine, a state-owned enterprise that has operated for more than 40 years producing iron and copper in Shaoguan city, lies about 16 kilometers upstream from the village.

Recent news of high levels of cadmium being found in rice sold in the city of Guangzhou have brought focus to the extent of heavy metal pollution throughout China. For some years, the Blacksmith Institute has worked to find ways of mitigating the effects of this pollution in the soil.

During the rainy season, about 80% of the rusty-colored water from the Dabaoshan Mine tailing pond rushes over a dam into the nearby Hengshishui River, instead of a waste treatment plant designed to handle the toxins in the water. A reservoir to supply clean drinking water and irrigation water was built by the provincial government in 2006 after years of complaints, but villagers who live downstream from the mine have to use the tainted water when the supply of clean water falls short.

Dabaoshan Mine tailing pond

As a result, cropland in Shangba and other villages is heavily polluted, resulting in poor plant growth, low yields, and evidence of heavy metals in the edible parts of plants, according to Nengchang Chen, a scientist with the Guangdong Institute of Eco-Environmental and Soil Sciences, who has worked with Blacksmith in the region.

With Blacksmith’s assistance, Mr. Chen has experimented with remediation techniques on the farmland soil of the Shangba administrative village, an area with about 3,400 people that is among the so-called “cancer villages” mapped by Chinese journalist Deng Fei in 2010.

According to Mr. Chen’s research, vegetables grown in Shangba have tested above national standards for copper, zinc, cadmium, lead and arsenic. Cadmium is of most concern as it is easily absorbed by plants, and appears to be causing kidney problems in Shangba’s population and is possibly contributing to high rates of cancer.

The scientist began studies in the area in 2005, and with Blacksmith’s assistance beginning in 2009, was able to complete further work using special strains of rice to “phyto-remediate” the soil. Phyto-remediation is the process of stimulating microorganisms already in the soil to speed up the transfer of toxins into carbon dioxide.

To do this, Mr. Chen plants a type of rice developed in Japan (choukokoku) that accumulates more cadmium than the average type of rice. The resulting crop is sold for use in metal recycling and as biomass for producing energy, he said. Mr. Chen also uses silica fertilizer on the contaminated soil as it can reduce the amount of cadmium that exists.

Mr. Chen’s work has been useful to other communities that are also grappling with soil contamination, such as Fenghuang County in Hunan Province and in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, he said.

In addition to the work in Guangdong, Blacksmith is working on other techniques as well. In Guixi City, Jiangxi Province, Blacksmith is piloting experiments using lime to reduce the toxicity of heavy metals introduced into the soil from one of the largest copper smelters in China.

Youtian He, a farmer in Shangba, has worked with Mr. Chen for many years on his fields of rice and sugar cane. But Mr. He’s wife is now suffering from cancer, as is a brother, and his young daughter remains threatened from the soil outside their home where she lives and plays. Reducing levels of cadmium throughout China, in Guangdong, Hunan, and elsewhere in the nation, remains critical to the health and safety of Mr. He’s family, the villagers of Shangba, and all of China’s population dependent on local agriculture.

India’s Amazing Pollution Story

Our latest post appeared in the Indiaspora blog, reproduced below. Join us on May 7, 2013 for Blacksmith’s Benefit for India.

An Undesirable Export

Recently, the nonprofit I work with received a letter from a man who said he was writing to us as a “last resort.” He was asking for help dealing with toxic pollution in his neighborhood in India, half a world away from our offices in New York. This exchange reflects what pollution is – a problem with no boundaries.

On May 7, Blacksmith Institute will host its first ever Benefit for India to raise awareness and support for pollution cleanup work in India. The event, to be held in New York, will serve as a rallying point for the Indian American community (and their friends) to direct help back to India. Why? Because pollution in India is not just an Indian problem. Pollution is a global issue with worldwide ramifications. While pollution affects those living or working near the source of contamination the most, it also travels, affects the global economy, and accelerates the deterioration of the environment for everyone. This is why pollution in India should be our concern as well.

According to the World Bank, by 2020, India’s water, air, soil and forest resources will be under more human pressure than those of any other country. With over a billion industrious people all striving to make a living, India must find a way to sustain its economic growth without exposing its residents to the deadly health impacts from pollution.

Children are especially at risk. Young developing minds and bodies can be devastated by prolonged exposure even to low doses of pollution, resulting in I.Q. losses and a battery of other lifelong ailments. About 1,000 Indian children reportedly die of pollution-related illnesses every day. At the current rate, India could lose a whole generation, and part of its future, to pollution.

But there is good news.

“The India story is truly amazing,” says Karti Sandilya, the guest of honor at the Blacksmith Benefit for India. “Within the next few years, ten of India’s worst polluted sites should be dealt with.”

“These are large sites that Blacksmith assessed, compiled in an inventory, and shared with the Indian government. The government has set up a fund to clean the ten worst sites” explained Sandilya, the former US Resident Director of the Asian Development Bank and a Blacksmith advisor.

“But there are still many small polluted sites in India and that’s where India Americans can help,” says Sandilya. “If they can channel resources and support to India through Blacksmith, we can start tackling the thousands of small sites scattered all throughout the country.”

Small sites perhaps like the one described by our letter-writer. He believes a battery manufacturer situated in the middle of his densely populated neighborhood is responsible for the daily pollution. He writes about obnoxious smells spewing from the factory’s chimney, and he says his family, including a ten-month old baby, has difficulty breathing. To make things worse, he fears the factory is expanding and he feels that there is nothing he can do about it.

“Does the law permit this kind of polluting?” he asks.

Well, the answer is no. Under India’s Environment Protection Act of 1986 and other regulations, the storing and manufacturing of hazardous chemicals is not permitted inside a densely populated area. But due to weak enforcement of regulations, we believe that what our letter-writer is experiencing is not unusual.

Factories in India often pollute with little consequences, while many small, informal mom-and-pop operations, which are responsible for much of the pollution, fly under the radar. These small operators have little incentive or resources to clean up their act.

For example, many Indian families recycle lead-acid batteries, the kind found in every car or truck, for a living. They break the batteries by hand in their yard, and smelt the toxic lead they collect in their kitchens. Even if they understand that their families are being poisoned, few will or can stop the practice because it is their livelihood. And that problem is getting worse.

“People who have bicycles now have scooters, and those who have scooters now have cars. So there are lot of batteries all over country,” says Sandilya. “Every town has underground battery operations. Only half of all batteries in India are recovered and recycled by the battery manufacturers with some kind of controls. 50% is done by backyard operators.”

The other big problem is tannery waste. Many Indians, including children, work with toxic chemicals in tanneries with few safeguards because for them, making a living, even in the most poisonous surroundings, is better than not making a living at all.

And so, toxic pollutants have permeated the Indian landscape, especially the waterways, where untreated industrial waste is often dumped. Add to this the estimated 32,000 million liters of untreated sewage that flows into the country’s rivers every day, and you have a “ticking health bomb.”

The Indian pollution story is not that different from what is happening in China, and what has happened in the U.S. and in Europe. Industrialization brings pollution but it is a problem that can be solved using lessons we have learnt globally.

For example, Blacksmith is working to get pollution scrubbers used by manufacturing plants around the world installed in factories in India to stem the flow of toxic waste. In Muthia, Blacksmith used worms to “eat” up toxic heavy metals from some 2,750 tons of industrial waste dumped in this village in Gujarat. Vermiculture is a low-cost technique that can be easily replicated at toxic hotspots around the world. In Kanpur, Blacksmith introduced elements into the groundwater to trigger a reaction with the toxic hexavalent chromium pollutant, causing it to bind to rocks and preventing it from contaminating water. This is a technique that has been used successfully in various countries for years.

So May 7 join us in New York to help fight pollution in India. All of our lives are intertwined across borders through economies, culture, families, and friends. This is what the letter-writer in India understands. He is not alone. We can all help by sharing and supporting solutions and ideas. In India, change has already begun with the upcoming cleanup of the ten large polluted hotspots. Now help us tackle the rest. More information about the event can be found at www.blacksmithbenefit.org.

Mercury Negotiations Recharged With Hot Chocolate and Cookies

Fernando Lugris, chair of the INC negotiations (left), with representatives of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution at INC5.

I attended the INC5 mercury negotiations in Geneva last month along with members of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) from the EU, UNEP, UNIDO, and GIZ, and representatives from SAICM and various countries including Peru and Uruguay. We were there to share information about the GAHP and we did it with the help of “sweet breaks.”

So in the no-nonsense arena of the INC5 negotiations, where 750 participants from more than 140 countries huddled together for over a week, we set up tables filled with hot chocolate, cookies and colorful cupcakes to provide respite for the weary.  It turns out, the treats played a small but welcome role on the sidelines of the talks, which produced an agreement between more than 140 countries on rules to curb mercury pollution.

Bringing different groups together is what Blacksmith does on many of our remediation projects, and over the years we’ve learnt that sometimes all it takes is something simple to get people to come to an agreement. The treats refreshed and recharge participants and also provided the opportunity for casual connections. I like to think that the many valuable side conversations about pollution and mercury that took place over cookies and hot chocolate left an impression on the proceedings.

In business, many deals have been sealed over dinner and drinks. The path to a cleaner world, I believe, follows the same general course. It is all about building relationships. The GAHP is the result of an international coalition – a network of relationships – that took hold over years of conversations.  Now, we at the GAHP are extending our hands to low-and middle-income countries in need of help to deal with pollution issues. Along the way, I am sure we will share numerous meals and cups of tea with representatives at every level. We will talk, discuss, exchange ideas and work together to get rid of pollution.  And when the cleanup is done, we will look back and remember how that conversation started, over hot chocolate and sweet treats in the middle of a crowd.

Related: Q and A about the GAHP and mercury

Pollution Lessons from History

News about pollution has lately been dominated by reporting on China’s increasingly toxic air, water and land.  All this attention is crucial because it is the catalyst to change. We don’t know when or where, but change is bound to happen if we look at the history of industrialization. After all, what China is going through now has more or less already happened in the U.S. and Europe. Here are examples of a few pollution disasters that led to change:

  • In 1936, the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland, Ohio became so polluted that the water erupted into flames. Over the next 30 years, the river caught fire several more times until 1969, when a major fire prompted an outcry and action.
  • In 1948, about 40 people were killed and more than 7,000 became seriously ill as the result of a lethal haze over Donora, Pennsylvania. This led to the first federal attempt to control air pollution.
  • In 1952, what’s now known as the Great smog engulfed London, reportedly killing approximately 12,000 people.

Today, the problem of life-threatening pollution has been solved for the most part in U.S. and Europe.  While pollution still exists to some extent, it is nowhere near the levels they were at a century ago, and most of the worst contamination has been cleaned up.  As a result, none of the hotspots on Blacksmith’s list of world’s worst polluted places are in the U.S. or Europe.

The lesson that history is teaching us is that there is a solution to the pollution problem.  All we need is:

  1. attention to focus the forces of change
  2. resources to conduct cleanup
  3. Education, incentives and regulations to stop current pollution and prevent future contamination

The lessons and solutions learned from pollution prevention work in the U.S. and Europe can be applied to the rest of the world. The template for change already exists.  All we need to do is to make it accessible and provide support for change.  One way we are working to make this happen is through the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). By coming together and sharing resources, we can make sure that in this instance, history will repeat itself.