The 2011 Top Ten Worst Pollution Problems Worldwide

Cross-posted from Green Cross Switzerland.

Earlier this month, Green Cross Switzerland and the US-based Blacksmith Institute released a report that presented the top ten list of the world’s worst pollution problems. Using data collected over the past three years from more than 2,000 toxic hotspots, the Environmental Report 2011 identifies the top ten sources of pollution and calculates their health impacts.

“Toxic exposure associated with mining and industrial processes all over the world is a major health risk for the affected population,” says David Hanrahan, Head of Global Program at the Blacksmith Institute.

“Despite the fact that at least as many people suffer from pollution-related illnesses as from malaria or tuberculosis, the international community does not support aid initiatives in most countries,” emphasizes Nathalie Gysi, Executive Director, Green Cross Switzerland.

Toxic chemicals are among the worst health risks
The 2011 Pollution Report calculates for the first time the impact of pollution based both on years of life lost and years spent in poor health, whereas much of the current research in environmental health focuses on the number of deaths a problem causes. Because toxic pollution often leads to crippling disability that does not always result in death, many victims are often left uncounted. This report calculates that, on average, a person impacted by the types of pollution in the top ten list could lose 12.7 years to death or disability. This measurement is called Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY) and represents the sum of life years lost and years lived with disability.

Globally, The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that toxic chemical exposure was responsible for 4.9 million deaths and 86 million DALYs in 2004. The large difference between deaths and DALYs illustrates that a substantial amount of people are living with disabilities caused by exposure to chemicals. This report goes a step further and pinpoints the cause and effect by calculating DALYs for one specific community plagued by one economic activity and the toxic pollutant it releases. This allowed to more accurately and directly isolate and identify the most severe and widespread pollution problems. These surveys will serve as a tool to help prioritize future resource allocation and cleanup efforts. “The world community is called upon to provide the needed resources and commitment to eliminate the pollution sources and to address the most severe problems immediately,” says Dr. Stephan Robinson, Unit Manager (Disarmament, Water) at Green Cross Switzerland.

The 2011 Top Ten Worst Toxic Pollution Problems Worldwide:
(Ranked according to population at risk)

  1. Mining and ore processing; estimated population at risk: 7,02 million
  2. Metal smelting; estimated population at risk: 4.95 million
  3. Chemical production; estimated population at risk: 4.78 million
  4. Artisanal mining; estimated population at risk: 4.23 million
  5. Industrial estates; estimated population at risk: 3.86 million
  6. Agricultural production; estimated population at risk: 3.27 million
  7. Landfills with industrial and household waste; estimated population at risk: 3.21 million
  8. Heavy industry (casting, milling, stamping); estimated population at risk: 2.77 million
  9. Petrochemical industry; estimated population at risk: 1.91 million
  10. Tannery operations; estimated population at risk: 1.89 million

The 2011 Environmental Report is based on the estimated number of people affected by the pollutants and the number of sites identified globally where pollutants exist in concentrations above health standards. Its focus is specifically on pollutants considered “toxic” by the Blacksmith Institute Technical Advisory Board. Unlike the 2008 report, it excludes problems like indoor air pollution, which might contain nontoxic elements. It also focuses on sites with a clear, fixed source of toxic pollution that can be targeted for remediation efforts. This scope excludes pollution problems where the source is unclear or distributed – such as automobile emissions, general urban air pollution, non-point source water pollution from urban storm runoff, general household or commercial waste disposal, and oil or chemical spills from transport and distribution activities.

The report also reveals that, contrary to popular belief, many of the worst pollution problems are not caused by multi-national companies but by poorly regulated small-scale operations like artisanal mining, small-scale metal recycling, and abandoned factories. However, high-income countries are indirectly contributing to the problem in a significant way, as demand for commodities and consumer goods is largely driven by the economies of high-income countries. They thus support many of these smaller industries, adding to the severity of pollution problems in low-income countries.

Unlike the 2008 report, which included input from external experts and sources, the 2011 report is based entirely on site assessment data that Blacksmith with support from Green Cross Switzerland has collected directly at the locations with toxic pollution problems. Over the last three years, information on over 2,000 polluted sites has been catalogued, including data about concentrations of key pollutants, industrial sources, GPS coordinates, observed health effects, exposure pathways, photos, maps, and information about the potentially exposed population.

Yearly pollution reports
Since 2006, Blacksmith Institute’s yearly reports have been instrumental in increasing public understanding of the health impacts caused by the world’s worst polluted places, and in some cases, have even compelled cleanup work at these sites. Previous reports have identified the worst toxic threats and the worst pollution problems. Blacksmith reports have been issued jointly with Green Cross Switzerland since 2007.

About Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland
Blacksmith Institute is an international non-profit organization dedicated to solving life-threatening pollution issues in the developing world. It addresses a critical need to identify and clean up the world’s worst polluted places. Blacksmith focuses on places where human health, especially that of women and children, is most at risk. Based in New York, Blacksmith works cooperatively in partnerships that include governments, the international community, NGOs and local agencies to design and implement innovative, low-cost solutions to save lives. Since 1999, Blacksmith has completed over 50 projects; Blacksmith is currently engaged in over 40 projects in 20 countries.

Green Cross Switzerland facilitates overcoming consequential damages caused by industrial and military disasters and the clean-up of contaminated sites from the period of the Cold War. Central issues are the improvement of the living quality of people affected by chemical, radioactive and other types of contamination, as well as the promotion of a sustainable development in the spirit of co-operation instead of confrontation. This includes the involvement of all stakeholder groups affected by a problem. Green Cross International with headquarters in Geneva was founded in 1993 by Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union. The organization consists of a worldwide network of 32 subsidiaries committed to important issues such as peace, security, the fight against poverty and protection of the environment.

Image Credits:

Green Cross Switzerland