Top Ten List of Worst Polluted Places Generates Worldwide Attention, Triggers Renewed Focus on Global Problem

The conversation about pollution just got louder.

Since 2006, Blacksmith’s yearly reports have been instrumental in increasing public understanding of the health impacts posed by toxic pollution, and in some cases, have compelled cleanup work at pollution hotspots.

This latest report is no different. Below is some of what is being said.

Learn more about “Top Ten Toxic Threats in 2013” and download the report.

“Climate change may get most of the attention, but the biggest environmental risk to human health today isn’t global warming. It’s industrial pollution, often in poor cities and towns where factories, power plants and chemical facilities face little to no regulation.” — Time magazine (See the Time magazine slideshow)

In some places the damage caused to the land is so huge that it cannot be reversed, so the only option is to move people away and seal the contamination. — BBC News

The report found that the greatest threats to human health are increasingly coming from thousands of impoverished workers conducting small-scale production in dangerous conditions, rather than massive volumes of waste from single companies or factories. — International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Such toxic pollution threatens the health of more than 200 million people, and industrial pollutants, led by lead–acid battery recycling, affect the health of more people than malaria globally, according to Blacksmith’s calculations. — Scientific American (see slideshow)

Blacksmith experts increased the estimated number of people threatened by toxic pollution, from 125 million a year ago to 200 million today, based on increasing pollution as well as increasing discovery of waste sites. — Huffington Post

“In these extraordinarily toxic places lifespans are short and disease runs rampant among millions of people who live and work there, often to provide the products used in richer countries. “– The Guardian

Significant progress has been made in many places that previously made the list, the report acknowledges. In the Dominican Republic’s Haina, naming and shaming has produced positive results. Toronto Star

“…the report shines a light on an under-acknowledged problem. Environmental pollution is a major cause of disease, particularly among children, many of whom are running freely around places like Agbogbloshie. Up to 200 million people around the world are exposed to toxic chemicals regularly.”Fast Company/Co.Exist

West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan has called on all stakeholders to work together with the government in restoring the Citarum River following a report by an environmental organization, which listed the Citarum as one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water. The restoration program will be carried out in an integrated and systematic manner from 2014 to 2018. –Jakarta Post

The pollution began in the 16th century, when people began throwing animal parts and fat into the water. That continued into the 19th century, when businessmen came to its banks to set up “saladeros,” shops that produce salted meat. Over time, factories moved in and began dumping heavy metals and acid. – Associated Press, about the Riachuelo river in Argentina, new on the 2013 Top Ten Toxic Threats list.

This year’s list also includes Hazaribagh in Bangladesh, which is home to most the country’s 270 registered tanneries. Every day, they collectively dump around 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste, including cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, into the Buriganga, Dhaka’s main river and key water supply. AFP

Here are more highlights (click the icons to read).  More Blacksmith in the news here.

Protecting Children in Schools

As we’ve been harshly reminded, schools can sometimes be exposed to great danger. The tragedy last month got me thinking about what we are doing in schools in Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan. Although the threat is different, the response is the same – we are working to reduce the risks and make things safer.

Mailuu-Suu was where the Soviet Union mined uranium for the first atomic bomb. Since then, residents have been living with this tragic legacy.  Radiation literally flows out of the taps in Mailuu-Suu.  But you wouldn’t immediately spot the danger just by looking at the water or the surroundings.

Mailuu-Suu school cafeteriaIn one school’s neat cafeteria (pictured), where pretty pink curtains frame the windows, and rows of tables are set with lace tablecloths and colorful mugs, children were eating food cooked with contaminated water every day.  Overlooking the room, as if to obscure Mailuu-Suu’s position as one of the world’s worst polluted places, is a poster of a pristine lake flanked by lush mountains and trees. Outside, the children were washing their hands and faces, and drinking water filled with radioactive particles out of a tap in the yard.  Mailuu-Suu’s schools were preparing these children for a bright future, which they might not have because of the constant, everyday poisoning.

It is a complex problem that cannot be solved quickly.  The contamination is everywhere.  We had to start somewhere. So what we did was to focus on reducing the risks to the most vulnerable. We began installing water filters in schools and the hospital.

Child getting blood test, Mailuu-Suu

Child getting blood test, Mailuu-Suu

While each filter is supposed to last for 3 years, in Mailuu-Suu they are useless after just 9 months because of the severe levels of contamination. Until the entire community is cleaned up, we will just have to keep replacing these water filters.  It is the last line of defense for these children.

It is not the ideal solution but it is working.  It is reducing the health risks to these children.  There is still much work to do and the threat remains.  But we cannot just do nothing and we cannot wait for a perfect solution. We must do what we can to make a difference now.  This is true in Mailuu-Suu.  And it is true here in the U.S.

Mother’s Day in some of the world’s worst polluted places

This Mother’s Day, as we celebrate, thank and honor our mothers for all the things they do for us, I thought I would share some images of mothers in some of the world’s worst polluted places.

I see them all the time when I visit polluted hotspots where, really, no one should be living.  I see them going about their daily, often back-breaking work, many times with children in tow.  Like many moms the world over, these women are often too busy taking care of daily necessities to do anything else, let alone ponder the extremely contaminated environment in which they happen to live.

But these women are often the key to change once they realize their children are being poisoned.  They are the ones we usually work with to raise awareness about pollution in their communities and what they can do to keep safe, until the cleanup is completed. So to these mothers on the frontlines of pollution… thanks. We are working on giving them the ultimate Mother’s Day gift – a poison-free home.

Taking a break from scavenging at a dumpsite in India

Mother and child living near the contaminated Kharkai river in eastern India

A woman extracting gold from ore in Senegal, with children and food nearby. There are over 4.5 million women and some 600,000 children who are involved in artisanal gold mining around the world, and who are exposed to direct contact with toxic mercury used in the process.

Daily housework in the middle of Ghana's notorious Sodom and Gomorrah e-wasteland - the Agbogbloshie market.

Mother sleeping with her child in the middle of Ghana's Agbogbloshie market, where most of the world's e-waste ends up.

A Blacksmith team can be seen in the background doing some site testing

Surprise – Corporations NOT the Worst Pollution Problems

Contrary to popular belief, large multinational corporations are NOT the worst pollution problems.  That was one of the more interesting findings revealed in our 2011 World’s Worst Toxic Pollution Problems report.

Kids in La Oroya

Of course large corporations are associated with pollution, like the well-documented case of the Renco Group and their Doe Run refinery, blamed for not doing enough to deal with the big lead pollution problem at their smelter in La Oroya, Peru.

But if you look at the data we’ve been collecting from thousands of hotspots we’ve assessed as part of our global inventory of polluted sites, you will see that there are just as many smaller polluting sites.  And in terms of public health, poorly regulated small-scale operations like artisanal mining and backyard metal recycling have the greatest impact globally.

Most large corporations, thanks to the efforts of tireless advocates, tend to behave as they work at managing pollution (and their image) in what is essentially a very polluting industry.

When Renco bought the previously state-run smelter in 1997, they took over one of the most toxic enterprises.  Over ten years, they have spent as much as $30 million on pollution mitigation.  They have put in water treatment, tailings management, and other controls, and were in the process of replacing the primary smelter with lower polluting and lower sulfur technologies. [Read an update of Doe Run/La Oroya’s problems in Crain’s New York]

Frankly, the main hope for La Oroya is if Renco/Doe Run Peru is given the chance to finish the job and complete the installation of new equipment.

They’ve been shut down by politics, the weak economy and also litigation.  The town’s livelihood has been adversely affected because the plant is not operating but in the long term, if the plant is to reopen, new equipment must be installed.

Regardless of news reports, the company has shown a lot of good faith. And for things to change, people need to work together.

With a new government in place in Peru, I hope common sense will prevail and Renco/Doe Run Peru will be able to install new equipment and finally continue the cleanup of La Oroya.

[See the Top Ten List of the 2011 World’s Worst Toxic Pollution Problems report, released by Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland at]

Top Ten Things You Might Not Know About Pollution

Pollution is a topic that often gets buried by talk of conservation, climate change, sustainability and energy issues.  Perhaps because it is a complex subject with lots of sources and lots of effects.  While all the above issues are important, let’s give pollution some of the talk time it deserves.

Think you know about pollution?  Read on:

Top Ten Things You Might Not Know About Pollution

1) Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people.

It is comparable in population and risk to human health to problems like malaria and HIV.

2) 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 U.S.’s Superfund. The technology and know-how to clean up toxic pollution already exists. All that’s needed is resources and commitment.

3) There is a finite number of polluted sites in the world

While the number of polluted hotspots may increase, it is a finite figure. Currently, Blacksmith Institute’s database of polluted sites lists over 2000 of the world’s worst polluted places. Blacksmith is working to prioritize these sites for cleanup targeting the communities with the most at-risk populations.

4) Pollution solutions are relatively low-cost

The cost to save a human life through the removal of hazardous pollution on Blacksmith projects can be as little as $42. $20,000 is enough to start a project that saves lives.

5) Children are most susceptible to Pollution

While children only make up 10% 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.

6) Pollution is mainly caused by small-scale informal operations rather than large multi-national companies

However, demand for consumer goods from high-income countries still drive pollution activities in low-income countries.

7) Pollution does not stop even when the source of the pollution is removed

For example when polluting factories are closed, legacy pollution remains. If it is not removed, legacy pollution continues to sicken and kill.

8 ) Pollution can vastly lower life expectancy

In some of the world’s worst polluted places life expectancy can be as low as as 45 years because of lung, throat and thyroid cancers.

9) 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.

10) 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 travels and drops into rivers and seas worldwide, poisoning the seafood supply.

Read my earlier post:  What is Pollution?

What is Pollution?

It’s Pollution Prevention Week. Chances are, you’ve not really heard about it.

In my last post, I wrote about the Brown Agenda vs. the Green Agenda. Pollution is part of the Brown Agenda.  I bet you haven’t heard a lot about that either.

Talking about "The Brown Agenda: Toxic Waste and the Environment" at the American Australian Association, Sept. 13, 2011, New York City.

I give talks about pollution throughout the year because real discussion about the pollution is hard to come by. People are constantly surprised at the extent of the problem.  So I’ve decided to summarize my key points here to keep conversation going.

So, what is pollution?

Pollution is the introduction of substances that contaminate and poison the environment. Pollution can come from chemical waste dumped into rivers, factories spewing toxins into the air, scavengers burning e-waste to extract valuable components, industrial accidents, and many other sources.

Pollution – life-threatening toxic pollution – is one of the biggest and most pressing global problems. It affects over 100,000,000 people.  The health impacts from pollution exceeds issues like HIV.

Yet, pollution is one of the most underreported and underfunded global issues.

Pollution is especially prevalent in developing economies, where rapid industrialization and lack of regulations have resulted in unchecked toxic pollution.

Pollution is a death sentence in poor countries, where poisoned communities cannot afford to clean up toxic pollution, cannot afford to move, and cannot afford to demand change.  Even if the cause of pollution, say a factory, is closed down, the contamination often remains. This is called legacy pollution – pollution that continues to poison even through the source is gone.

Pollution is invisible in many countries, where it is so much a part of daily life.

  • In Nigeria, no one realized that lead pollution was the cause of hundreds of child deaths.  Parents were bringing lead-filled ore back to their homes for processing. The problem was not uncovered until doctors found almost no children in some villages on their immunization visits.
  • In Tanzania, a factory was spewing toxic waste into the environment because no one noticed that the treatment plant was not turned on.
  • When the wind blows in Gorlovka, Ukraine, poison spreads unnoticed. The lethal substance has been leaking from rotting containers at an abandoned chemical plant located close to a town of 500,000 people.  Moreover, with 30 metric tons of explosive TNT stored nearby, the danger of an accident producing a toxic cloud that could kill 50% of the town’s residents in a few minutes is very real.

Pollution is the root cases of many diseases that kill and disable.  In some of the world’s worst polluted places, babies are born with birth defects, children have lost 30 to 40 IQ points, and life expectancy may be as low as 45 years because of cancers and other diseases.

Pollution is global. Blacksmith has assessed and identified over 3,000 polluted hotspots across 80 countries, including about 200 sites in Africa and 600 in Asia. While pollution extracts the greatest toll on the people living in contaminated communities, the effects of pollution extend far beyond its source. The global market place loses valuable contributions from poisoned, broken economies.  And in many cases, toxic pollution travels and spreads.

Pollution is a global problem that can be solved. We know there is a solution because life-threatening toxic pollution has been eliminated in most developed countries.  We have the technology and know-how to remove pollutants, and we have prevented pollution with strict regulations. So while pollution reduces the standard of living and makes people sick in this country, the instances of extreme, life-threatening toxic pollution are rare.  So rare that they made a movie  – Erin Brockovich – out of the last high profile incident in the U.S. 

Pollution is a cheap problem to solve. $20,000 is enough to start a project that saves lives.

So now that you know, help us spread the word about pollution. Talk about pollution. I certainly will.

The Brown Agenda

Over the past decade or so, the talk surrounding environmental issues has mainly been about being green.  Sometimes referred to as the green agenda, its focus is on sustainability, reducing waste and recycling. While all this is good, the green agenda’s growth – mainly in industrialized, wealthier countries – has, in my view, been at the expense of the brown agenda, which mainly plagues low and middle-income countries.

To put it simply, the brown agenda is about pollution.  It is about toxic waste contaminating the environment and poisoning people.  It is about rapid, loosely regulated industrialization and the legacy of toxic waste left behind, even from factories, mines and other facilities that have been shut down because of excessive pollution.

While the green agenda talks about choice – use less, recycle more – the brown agenda, for those directly affected, is about a lack of options.  Poor communities poisoned by toxic pollution have no where to go, no one to turn to. They cannot afford to move.  They cannot afford to clean up the pollution.  They cannot afford to get treatment.

This sense of helplessness is all too common in many of the world’s worst polluted places, where families live with a life-sentence, just waiting for the clock to run out.

So my point?  Don’t forget the brown agenda while you pursue the green.  The brown agenda is not as pleasant to talk about, not as TV-friendly, and might not affect you directly…now.  But its effects are far-reaching.

This Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, I will be talking about “The Brown Agenda: Toxic Waste and the Environment” at an event organized by the American Australian Association.  If you are in New York City, register to join us.

Meeting President Medvedev on Russia’s Pollution Crisis

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with NGOs in Moscow about the country's pollution crisis, June 8, 2011.

Petr Sharov, Blacksmith’s Russia and Central Asia coordinator, attended a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 8, along with representatives from 24 other NGOs working in Russia.

At the informal meeting, which took place on the Kremlin’s green lawn, Medvedev told the gathering of NGOs that Russia was ready to deal with the large scale, mostly inherited environmental disaster facing them – more than 30 billion tonnes of accumulated hazardous waste, with over half the population in 40 regions living in highly polluted conditions.

While this is good news, there is also cause for worry, as Petr reports from Moscow:

This was actually the first ever official meeting between the Russian President and environmental NGOs, which could be a sign of increased attention of Russia’s top authorities to environmental issues.  In addition to Blacksmith, the list of 25 NGOs included Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, as well as several smaller regional groups and even a few government created “eco-movements”.

A broad range of issues was discussed, from saving Lake Baikal and cutting forests to eco-education for children and attacks on environmental activists. The NGOs pointed out the obvious: current weak government environmental policies and lack of enforcement of environmental legislation in the country.

After meeting with the NGOs, Medvedev met with the State Council the next day in Dzerzhinsk – identified by Blacksmith as one of the top ten most polluted places in the world – to discuss the same environmental agenda.  At both meetings, the issue of pollution was one of the key themes.

The positive:

The President was thoughtful about the problems we raised. We saw that he was trying to understand the issues. From the start he has positioned himself as the “green” President.

A year ago, Medvedev declared an ambitious government strategy to deal with environmental issues and improve the situation in the country. It was the first such strategy ever to appear in the last 15 years. Now it’s time to see if it actually works.

It is obvious that the President’s administration has the idea that something needs to be done about the industrial pollution accumulated since the Soviet Union that is still building up. They acknowledge that millions live with pollution. The Minister of Natural Resources and Environment reported that they had identified 194 hotspots that would be worked on under a special federal cleanup program. Moreover, they announced the launch of three cleanup projects with $6 billion RUB in funding (about US$200 million).

The negative:

While their intentions are good, they do not seem to see a relation between the health of people and the contamination.

For example, the three projects they announced are all targeted at areas where no one really lives! Meanwhile in Dzerzhinsk, a hotspot with a population of 300,000, where the meeting was held, the cleanup is being just planned in some unknown future. I am afraid if they continue with their plan, there will be little change in terms of the number of people at risk from pollution.

As a matter of fact in Russia right now, there is very little experience of doing pollution cleanup and no system for monitoring the impacts of pollution on people’s health.  This is a problem.  At the meeting, I handed the President a  report on our project in the Rudnaya River Valley, where in three years, we managed to reduce blood lead concentrations of children two times. Our project is the ONLY example of heavy metals cleanup and simultaneous health intervention in Russia. They must use our experience and focus on cleaning up the most contaminated places with the most people first. This is the idea we brought to the attention of the President and it has yet to be realized by the government.

Video: Chernobyl Elementary School, Central Square

It’s been 25 years since the meltown at Chernobyl and the abandoned town of Pripyat still echoes with tragedy.  Those of you who saw our virtual tour via our blog posts of April 4 and April 6 would already have a sense of the surreal and sobering scene we encountered on our recent visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Now here’s some video (below). Blacksmith staffer Drew McCartor took his camera on a walk through the music room of an abandoned elementary school littered with sheet music, a broken doll, and a piano with a gas mask sitting on its exposed shell. Then he took in the scene standing in the deserted and eerily quiet central square.  Both videos look like scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie.

Radiation cleanup can be a long process but there is hope.  All that is required is commitment and resources.  Just this week, the European Commission pledged around €110 million and donor nations have pledged $785 million to ensure that the Chernobyl site is made stable and environmentally safe.

But while world attention turns once again to Chernobyl on its 25th anniversary, and as new concerns collect around Fukushima, we have to remember that radiation pollution does not just come from a big, spectacular nuclear accident. There are many other hotspots in the world contaminated with radiation pollution from the manufacture of weapons or chemicals.

Read All About it – God’s Paradise Starts to Shed World’s Worst Polluted Label

“God’s Paradise Will be Removed from World’s Worst Polluted Places”

Declared Green Zone at God’s Paradise – Happiness Where There Was Once Contamination.

Park Provides Health at God’s Paradise

These local headlines tell the story. Twelve days ago, Paraíso de Dios, or God’s Paradise, got a new park. Everybody was at the grand opening – local officials, ministers, families and the local press. Children played, women danced. It was festive.

Why so much rejoicing over a new park? Well, because the park represents a fresh start for the community plagued with an extraordinarily high level of lead contamination.

The park was once a highly polluted plot of land. Just running around barefoot could get children poisoned. Whereas the soil used to contain 11,400 to 463,970 parts per million of lead, it now tests at only 10 to 300 parts per million of lead after Blacksmith-led cleanup efforts. This is a level considered safe in the U.S.

Blacksmith Technical Advisory Board member Dr. Ian von Lindern was there to witness the celebration and to push through further cleanup efforts. After all, the park is only the start of what the local press have been calling the “green zone.”

Dr. von Lindern told me that the Mayor of Haina, where God’s Paradise is located, has agreed to continue working with us. The successful cleanup has energized everyone. A Blacksmith team is scheduled to return to the Dominican Republic in the next six weeks to begin planning the remaining cleanup and to continue testing children for lead.

Today a park, tomorrow the entire city. Slowly, God’s Paradise is moving away from the label of “Dominican Chernobyl” and closer to its namesake.

It’s amazing what a clean park can do for a community.