Worst Forms of Pollution Killing Millions

These children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning. Haina, Dominican Republic. (Photo by Blacksmith Institute.)

Worst Forms of Pollution Killing Millions

UXBRIDGE, Canada - Gold mining
and recycling car batteries are two of the world's Top 10 most
dangerous pollution problems
, and the least known, according a new

The health of hundreds of millions of people is
affected and millions die because of preventable pollution problems
like toxic waste, air pollution, ground and surface water
contamination, metal smelting and processing, used car battery
recycling and artisanal gold mining, the "Top Ten" report found.

"The global health burden from pollution is astonishing, and
mainly affects women and children," said Richard Fuller, director of
the New York- based Blacksmith Institute, a independent environmental
group that released the list Tuesday in partnership with Green Cross

"The world community needs to wake up to this fact," Fuller told IPS.

In previous years, the Blacksmith Institute has released a Top
Ten list of toxic sites. The Institute continues to compile a detailed
database with over 600 toxic sites and will release the world's first
detailed global inventory in a couple of years.

However, this year, rather than focus on places, it wants to
bring specific pollution issues to world attention. And in particular
highlight the health impacts -- a 2007 Cornell University study that 40
percent of all deaths worldwide are directly attributable to pollution,
he said.

Remediation and preventing much of this pollution are not only possible
but cost-effective, especially when compared to other international
efforts to improve health in developing countries.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of information and alternatives, as
Fuller learned on a recent investigation in Dakar, the capital of
Senegal, where children had died from lead poisoning. "Women from some
poor areas of Dakar were hoping to make some money recycling car
batteries and ended up accidentally killing their children," he said.

In the tropics, car batteries only last a year or two and so there is a
thriving recycling industry. However, much of this is done by very poor
people who break open the batteries with axes and melt them down on
open fires. Lead dust fills the air and children playing nearby inhaled
the toxic lead dust, and some died.

"It is very difficult to die from lead poisoning, it takes an awful lot of lead," Fuller said.

Fuller and colleagues measured the lead levels in the blood of
surviving children and found levels 10 times the maximum allowed in the
U.S. Lead is a potent neurotoxin and children are especially sensitive,
as it affects their developing nervous systems and brains. "These are
now the brain-damaged children of Dakar," he said.

Blacksmith arranged to have the site in Dakar cleaned up but
because it is an important source of income for the poor, the batteries
are still collected but are now being shipped to proper recycling
facilities. The World Health Organisation is trying to treat the
affected children, he said.

"There is no simple, universal solution. It has to be solved on step by step, one place at a time basis," Fuller noted.

Another of the biggest overlooked pollution issues comes from artisanal
and small-scale mining involving some 15 million miners, including 4.5
million women and 600,000 children, the report finds. As much as 95
percent of the mercury used to recover the gold ends up in the
environment. That mercury represents 30 percent of all mercury emitted
into the global environment each year from all sources including power
plants, according to the U.N. Industrial Development Organisation.

"It's an enormous problem that transcends boundaries. That mercury ends
up in the tuna we eat here in North America," Fuller said.

Mercury is another potent neurotoxin and is dangerous in
extremely small quantities. Hundreds of kilogrammes are used every day
for gold recovery. "Artisanal miners are the poorest of the poor and
you can't just tell them to stop," he said.

There are safer and more effective ways of recover gold using
a simple tool called a "retort" but education and retraining is
required. Blacksmith and its partners have had good success in teaching
and then paying a leader in the community to train local miners on the
safer technique.

"It doesn't take that much money to solve these pollution problems," he said.

And the pollution that affects the health of nearly a billion
people and impairs countries' economy development could be fixed in
just 20 to 30 years with a concerted effort by the international
community. "Governments are becoming interested in this. I'm cautiously
optimistic," Fuller said.

Education and other international development assistance
efforts will fail without reducing the pollution burden that affects
the mental and physical capacity of so many people. Even with a
downturn in the global economy, the argument for cleaning up pollution
is so "compelling that it will not stop countries from taking action".

"Clean air, water and soil are human rights," he said.

The World's Worst Pollution Problems list is unranked and includes:

  • Indoor air pollution: adverse air conditions in indoor spaces
  • Urban air quality: adverse outdoor air conditions in urban areas
  • Untreated sewage: untreated waste water
  • Groundwater contamination: pollution of underground water sources as a result of human activity
  • Contaminated surface water: pollution of rivers or shallow dug wells mainly used for drinking and cooking
  • Artisanal gold mining: small scale mining activities that use
    the most basic methods to extract and process minerals and metals
  • Industrial mining activities: larger scale mining activities with excessive mineral wastes
  • Metals smelting and other processing: extractive, industrial, and pollutant-emitting processes
  • Radioactive waste and uranium mining: pollution resulting
    from the improper management of uranium mine tailings and nuclear waste
  • Used lead acid battery recycling: smelting of batteries used in cars, trucks and back-up power supplies

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