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October 31, 2012
Pollution as a global disease

Pollution from industrial waste sites in 49 low- to middle-income countries has a worse impact on public health than malaria and puts 125 million people at risk.  That’s the primary finding of research conducted by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland. 

According to the groups, The World’s Worst Pollution Problems: Assessing Health Risks at Hazardous Waste Sites constitutes the first time a calculation has been made to measure pollution’s toll on lives over such a wide area.  The specific measuring stick is called disability adjusted life years (DALYs), which represents the sum of two other calculations—years of life lost and years lost to disability.  Industrial pollutants in the waste sites investigated resulted in a DALYs of over 17 million.  For the same nations, the DALYs for malaria is about 14 million, for tuberculosis about 25 million, and for HIV/AIDS about 28 million. 

“The striking fact is that international and local government action on these disease burdens greatly outpaces the attention given to toxic sites,” state the researchers.

2,600 sites

Pollution-caused DALYs calculated in the report is based on the investigation of 2,600 sites throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and North America—principally abandoned (legacy or orphan) sites and informal artisanal gold-mining activities.  In 2011, the groups released a report that began to quantify the burden of disease from industries using a single site.  Since then, the groups have expanded their investigations to hundreds of other sites and extrapolated health impacts in the 49 countries to “provide a better understanding of the true scope of the issue.”  Because of the current lack of reliable human-based studies, the groups believe the global burden of disease represented in the report is almost certainly underestimated.

Top 10 industries

The report identifies the 10 industries resulting in most DALYs.  Lead-acid battery recycling is first on the list, followed by lead smelting, mining and ore processing, tannery operations, industrial/municipal dump sites, industrial estates, artisanal gold mining, product manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, and the dye industry.   Pollutants found at the sites and discussed in the report include lead, chromium, mercury, and asbestos.  These substances have quantifiable health outcomes and have been given disability weights by the World Health Organization, say the researchers.  However, many other pollutants were also found at the investigated sites.

Management technology absent

               According to the report, the underlying reasons for the “very significant” impact of industrial pollution on human health in the researched counties include:

    • Poor regulation and oversight of those industries using hazardous substances and generating hazardous wastes.
    • Poor practices for control of hazardous wastes and emissions, coupled often with poor or no technology for management and treatment of wastes and emissions.
    • The presence of hazardous industries close to or within densely populated areas.
    • The local communities’ and industry operators’ limited understanding of the potential health impacts from exposure to hazardous wastes and emissions.
    • The large role of small-scale enterprises in emitting toxic substances.  These operations are often in the informal economy and have limited financial resources to implement best practices.

    “Developing countries need the support of the international community to design and implement clean-up efforts, improve pollution control technologies, and provide educational training to industry workers and the surrounding community,” the report concludes.

    Click here to read the report.

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