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Transboundary Pollution Poses Growing Global Health Threat

New Report from Pure Earth Documents How the Pollution Crisis in Low- and Middle-Income Countries Affects Everyone’s Health, and What We Can Do to Address It.

NEW YORK (Jan. 8, 2019) -Disease-causing toxic pollution is a leading cause of death globally, and harms the health of millions of people, including those who live far from the source of the pollution, according to a new report issued today by the non-profit organization Pure Earth.

The findings of Pollution Knows No Borders, the first comprehensive report to aggregate expert analysis and relevant scientific literature on this topic, was presented by Richard Fuller, President, Pure Earth; Gina McCarthy, Former US EPA Administrator, and director, Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, Harvard University; Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair of UN Intl. Resource Panel; Baskut Tuncak UN Special Rapporteur, and others at a briefing in New York. (Interviews are available on request)

“When it comes to pollution, we are all connected. There is an invisible toxic thread that links workers being poisoned in poorer countries producing products, and consumers exposed to poisons while consuming these products. Reducing pollution is the right thing to do for children growing up in these countries, and it will also safeguard the health of children in wealthier consumer nations.” Richard Fuller, President, Pure Earth.

Toxic pollution is invisible and often takes years before the health impacts become evident but it is one of the biggest health threats we face today. There are still many domestic sources of modern pollution but increasingly our exposure comes from low and middle-income countries. That’s why it’s in everyone’s interest to advocate that pollution be addressed at the source, wherever it is around the world.Gina McCarthy, director, Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, Harvard University; former Administrator, US EPA

Key Findings:

  • Pollution (a global flow of toxins) moves from countries lacking substantive pollution controls to the rest of the world.

Examples include:

  • Air pollution – Toxic particles from burning coal in Eastern Europe affect Western Europe. Particles from China form a significant part of air pollution in California
  • Water pollution – Mercury from Asia and Africa ends up in the fish we eat in the US and Europe. Contaminated industrial wastewater in India and China is used to water crops, and affects spices and grains imported into the West.
  • Food and Products. Toxins, especially heavy metals, are regularly found in imported products, including sweets and candies, makeup, school supplies and more. Food for toddlers and babies often test above regulatory standards for lead, cadmium and arsenic.

What’s in your chocolates, pizza, juice, baby cereal and fish?

The US imports 50 to 60% of its fruits and vegetables, and more than 80% of its fish and shellfish, and almost all spices, coffee, cocoa and pet food.  Imported food products are an amalgam of ingredients originating in multiple countries.  Many products have long supply chains.

While the U.S., Canada and Europe have banned many toxic chemicals and pesticides, these harmful products continue to be used in factories and in agricultural production in low- and middle-income countries where environmental policies are less stringent.

Several studies have documented the increase in use of untreated industrial wastewater contaminated with toxic chemicals for crop irrigation by farmers lacking access to clean water. Farmers in countries like China and India contend with climate-related water stress and rapid growth of polluting factories around their fields, leaving them no choice but to use toxic water. Constant exposure to this water sickens farmers and their families. The poisoned water permanently contaminates the soil, gets absorbed by the plants, and makes its way into global food markets, exposing consumers around the world.

(Access interactive map/data visualizations of global food trade flows here.)

  • Independent testing of popular brands of chocolate between 2014 and 2018 found levels of lead and cadmium in 96 of 127 products for sale in US that exceeded California’s maximum allowable dose.
  • An analysis of a frozen pizza found that it was made from 35 different ingredients that passed through 60 countries on five different continents.
  • Your apple juice may be labeled “Product of Canada” but may have been made with concentrate from China.
  • One study found rice teething biscuits and cereal had between 61 and 92 times higher levels of mercury, and nearly ten times more arsenic than products made with wheat/oats.
  • Only a small percent of fish is tested for toxins by the US FDA – less than 1/10th of 1 percent. Yet of those tested, often 10 percent are rejected. Similar results occur for vegetables in Europe and elsewhere.

Children are most at risk. There has been a rapid increase in non-communicable diseases among children in recent decades, including diabetes, birth defects, autism spectrum disorder, leukemia, and more, a development that medical experts are calling a “silent epidemic”. Most of those diseases are expected to be the result of environmental exposures.

The solution is to prevent pollution at its source. Because pollution is global, solutions must be global as well. Simply adding border controls does not work, as companies importing food and products above safe levels often just re-open with another name. Besides, air and water toxic transports are not stopped at a customs gate.   Cleaner fuels, treatment plants for effluents, safe production techniques, and guidance on and enforcement of pollution regulations for small- and medium-sized enterprises – all these techniques have been shown to work successfully.  These solutions are usually cost effective and often have the added benefit of stemming climate change and improving local economies. They need to be encouraged and brought to scale in low- and middle-income countries.

You can’t solve air pollution or transboundary pollution on a country-by-country basis. It requires global cooperation to deal with the problem at the source. The good news is that international efforts underway to combat climate change will greatly reduce air pollution and improve the health of children everywhere. Janez Potocnik, Co-Chair of UN Intl. Resource Panel

Banning a highly toxic chemical agent in a high-income country offers a imprecise and illusory sense of global safety. Many chemical agents are dynamic and move through the environment as simple as the wind blows… The world needs to come together and work unilaterally to remove these agents. —Dr. Jack Caravanos, Clinical Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, New York University; Head of Research, Pure Earth.

Corporations have a large role to play. Their work on supply chain management ought to include pollution. Corporate Social Responsibility Programs addressing sustainability, environmental and/or health issues should include pollution control and prevention.

The supply chain for nearly anything — textiles, jewelry, food — is likely to result in local pollution or health impacts on workers at some point down the supply chain… Companies need to be more vigilant for toxic chemical risks throughout their supply chains and the lifecycle of their products. This should be part of the human rights due diligence that is expected of all companies. Consumers should demand that the products they are buying don’t come at the cost of poisoning workers and local communities,” says Baskut Tuncak,  the UN special rapporteur on toxic wastes.

What You Can Do

Be aware of the source location of the products you buy. The report lists excellent watchdog resources for products from groups like Environment Working Group, Health and Environment Alliance – HEAL, Center for Environmental Health and Safer Chemicals, Health Families.

Demand action by signing Pure Earth’s petition urging world leaders to prioritize pollution control at the source, protect children’s health, and increase funding for pollution cleanup. The petition can be signed here and will be shared with world leaders gathering at the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, March 11, 2019.


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