Worst Places on Earth Are Home to Millions

Rapidly industrialising India and China have claimed four of the top 10 most polluted places on the planet for the first time, according to a report by U.S. and European environmental groups

BROOKLIN, Canada - In 2006, Russia topped the list with the three sites in the top 10, but this year, two very large toxic sites affecting hundreds of thousands of people in India and China were included that had been missed in the previous global survey, said Richard Fuller, director of the New York- based Blacksmith Institute, a independent environmental group that released the list Sep. 12 report in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland.

"We were surprised these sites had not been reported before," Fuller told IPS.

One is Tianjin in the Anhui Province of China, which produces about 50 percent of the country's lead, often from low-level and illegal production facilities. A lack of environmental enforcement has resulted in severe lead poisoning, with soil and homes contaminated at levels 10 to 24 times China's national standards.

Up to 140,000 people may be affected, suffering from brain damage and mental retardation.

"The Chinese government says it is one of the worst environmental sites in the country," says David Hanrahan, Blacksmith's director of global operations.

Another newly "discovered" toxic community is in India's Sukinda Valley in the state of Orissa, home to 2.6 million people and one of the largest open cast chromite ore mines in the world. Twelve mines continue to operate without any environmental management plans. Over 30 million tonnes of waste rock are spread over the surrounding area and untreated water is discharged into the local river.

The ore is mined and refined for use in the many chrome-plated products enjoyed in North America and Europe, said Hanrahan.

Approximately 70 percent of the surface water and 60 percent of the drinking water contains hexavalent chromium at more than double national and international standards, and sometimes up to 20 times higher. In villages less than one kilometre from the sites, 24.47 percent of the inhabitants were found to be suffering from pollution-induced diseases.

"The fact of the matter is that children are sick and dying in these polluted places, and it's not rocket science to fix them," said Fuller.

The 10 sites in seven countries documented in the "World's Worst Polluted Places 2007" affect a total of 12 million people.

It's easy and often cheap to clean up these sites, experts say. The Blacksmith Institute's efforts are directed towards helping local groups find ways to address the problems. Most are old industrial sites that operated without any pollution controls and there was little attempt to clean them up before being abandoned.

Cleanup efforts that can take a decade or more appear too big, too costly and too complicated for local governments.

"There has been little action in terms of new funding or programmes. We all need to step up to the plate and get moving," Fuller said.

Russian authorities continue to deny there are any health problems in Dzerzhinsk, a city of 300,000 people where chemical weapons like sarin, VX gas, Mustard gas, and phosgene were manufactured for 50 years. At least 300,000 tonnes of waste from their manufacture were disposed of in the groundwater.

Birth defects are very common and the average lifespan of residents has fallen to the low 40s in a city where chemical manufacturing is still the major employer.

"There's been an absolutely frightening impact on people due to the huge amounts of toxics in the area," said Hanrahan.

Dzerzhinsk and another Russian city Norilsk, site of the world's largest metal smelting operations remain in the top 10 from last year.

The Top Ten list is based on scoring criteria devised by an international group of experts including researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Hunter College, Harvard University, IIT Delhi, University of Idaho, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and leaders of major international environmental remediation companies. Specialists from Green Cross Switzerland also participated in this year's assessment.

The methodology for 2007 Top Ten list was refined "to place more weight on the scale and toxicity of the pollution and on the numbers of people at risk," according to the report.

Another new feature of the 2007 report is the "Dirty 30", a more comprehensive group of polluted locations around the globe that includes the Top Ten. The four sites from the 2006 Top Ten that do not appear in the 2007 list are: Haina, Dominican Republic; Ranipet, India; Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan; and Rudnaya Pristan, Russia. All remain in the larger list.

The majority of the Dirty 30 sites lie in Asia, with China, India and Russia having the greatest number.

More than 400 sites were surveyed for inclusion and this only represents perhaps one-third to two-thirds of all the major toxic areas in the world, estimates Fuller.

"We don't have much information from Central Asia or Latin America," he says.

However, the mining town of La Oroya in Peru remains on the list from last year. The site of a poly-metallic smelter owned by the Missouri-based Doe Run Corporation, the plant has been largely responsible for the dangerously high lead levels found in children's blood.

The problem is well documented, but action to clean up and curtail this pollution has been delayed for the area's 35,000 inhabitants, the report found.

"Governments and others don't seem to realise that toxic pollution has a huge impact on their economies," said Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland, an NGO that works to overcome damages caused by industrial and military disasters.

People who die prematurely or who are sick in their most productive years represent a significant economic loss to their countries, Robinson explained.

"A healthy environment and healthy citizens are key for any countries' future," he said.

The Ten "Killer Communities" for 2007, in alphabetical order by country, are: Sumgayit, Azerbaijan; Linfen, China; Tianjin, China; Sukinda, India; Vapi, India; La Oroya, Peru; Dzerzhinsk, Russia; Norilsk, Russia; Chernobyl, Ukraine; and Kabwe, Zambia.

(c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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