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Toxic Hotspots Require Global Superfund

by Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada - One of the world's biggest health threats is also one of the least recognised - more than 100 million people who literally breathe and eat toxic pollutants like lead, mercury, chromium every day, according to the first-ever detailed assessment.

Workers wearing face masks load discarded piles of sacks onto a truck at a rare earth smelting plant located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. (REUTERS/David Gray) Workers wearing face masks load discarded piles of sacks onto a truck at a rare earth smelting plant located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. (REUTERS/David Gray) By contrast, global attention and billions of dollars are focused on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which affect comparable numbers of people.

"Toxic pollution has been under the radar screen of most governments for some time," said Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland, a group focused on environmental health, and co-author of the assessment titled "World's Worst Pollution Problems Report 2010".

"These pollution problems can be dealt with affordably and effectively," Robinson told IPS.

Past clean-up projects designed by the groups range from the very low-tech, low-cost to more technical engineering projects involving soil removal at playgrounds and groundwater remediation, he said.

"The health of roughly 100 million people is at risk from pollution in developing countries," said Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute, a small U.S. environmental group that worked with Green Cross to conduct the world's first detailed inventory of polluted sites.

Top Six Toxic Threats and Number of People Affected
1. Lead: 18-22 million

2. Mercury: 15-19 million

3. Chromium: 13-17 million

4. Arsenic: 5-9 million

5. Pesticides: 5-8 million

6. Radionuclides: 5-8 million

*Estimated global impact is extrapolated from current site research and assessment coverage

Their findings are based on data from over 1,000 risk assessments conducted by Blacksmith Institute investigators at polluted sites over the past two years.

"These toxic sites are rarely caused by large multinational corporations. It is usually local business, former government industries or the informal, artisanal industry like gold mining or lead battery recycling," Fuller said.

In one of the more shocking cases of toxic pollution, doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) visiting the northwest Nigerian state of Zamfara early this year discovered villages with hardly any children. More than 400 children had died from acute lead poisoning, they later learned. The remaining 2,500 children in the district had toxic levels of lead in the blood and needed emergency treatment called chelation therapy to reduce these levels.

"Some of these kids had the world's highest lead levels ever recorded," said Bret Ericson, who headed Blacksmith's "Global Inventory Project" that conducted the site assessments.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin and children are especially sensitive, as it affects their developing nervous systems and brains. Many of those affected will have permanent brain and neurological damage. With every five-point rise in blood lead levels there is a corresponding four-point decline in IQ, Ericson told IPS. Some children had levels that will reduce their IQ 40 or more points, leaving them severely mentally handicapped.

Many of the Nigerian villagers were small-scale gold miners who crushed gold-bearing rocks inside village compounds. They did not know the ore also contained extremely high levels of lead. Children inhaled the lead dust which had spread throughout the community.

Blacksmith is working with local authorities and a U.S.- based company to decontaminate several villages and their soils. This is a major effort involving the World Health Organisation, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MSF and other partners, but the total costs will be less than $3 million, he said.

"There is no international funding agency to deal with this kind of thing, so finding even relatively small amounts of money to do remediation is challenging," he said.

Ericson coordinates more than 160 investigators who have spent the last two years finding and assessing toxic sites around the world. For example, there are derelict, former one-industry towns throughout the former Soviet Union where people are forced to scavenge in the toxic ruins of the old dirty industries to survive.

"We receive reports like this all the time. These sites are tragic and even countries like Ukraine have very little capacity to deal with it," he said.

In central Asia, communities living near uranium mining waste sites are breathing, drinking and eating food contaminated with radioactive wastes. "This is very bad for children and has many health impacts," said Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland. Under the Soviet Union, those sites were sealed and monitored, but no longer. "Residents, having no choice or simply unaware, use abundant uranium mine tailings for building materials," Robinson told IPS.

Many countries lack the knowledge, technical expertise and capacity to deal with toxic sites even though some can be cleaned for relatively small amounts of money - 100,000 to 300,000 dollars. Blacksmith and its partners have cleaned up around 20 sites with a budget of 30 million dollars.

Tackling these problems will require international funding, where a billion dollars would make a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Blacksmith hopes to create a health and pollution fund to collect and distribute donations from countries and donor agencies so something can be done to clean up the worst problems.

"In the 20 countries where we work, we are their main resource for assessing and dealing with toxic sites," said Fuller. "We're it."

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