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Special Features | World

LISTS | Top 10 polluting industries, Top 5 toxic stuff imperil 125M people

File photo from advocacy group Greenpeace illustrates the pollution of rivers by chemicals.
The online news portal of TV5

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY - Industrial and mining pollutants are putting at risk the health of at least 125 million people worldwide, especially those in the developing world, and have a higher health impact than some of the deadliest diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, two environment advocacy groups said in a report released Wednesday.

The report titled 2012 World’s Worst Pollution Problems released by Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland, calculated for the first time the public health impact of pollutants from industrial plants and mining released into the air, water and soil.

The report also identified the Top Ten industries and their impact estimates based on the body of research that the field studies provided in combination with toxicological information provided by the World Health Organization and the US Environmental Protection Agency and other public health leaders.

These industries are:

1.  lead-acid battery recycling, which affects 4,800,000 people; 

2. lead smelting (2,600,000); 

3. mining and ore processing (2,521,600); 

4. tannery operations  (1,930,000); 

5. industrial/municipal dump sites (1,234,000); 

6. industrial estates (1,060,000); 

7. artisanal gold mining (1,021,000); 

8. product manufacturing (786,000); 

9. chemical manufacturing (765,000); 

10. dye industry (430,000).

According to the report, the toxic materials that cause the most illness are:

1. lead, which impairs the neurological  development of children and causes cardiovascular disease in adults; 

2. chromium, which causes cancers;

3. mercury, which damages the kidneys and affects neurological development in children; 

4. cadmium (causes cancer and kidney disease); 

5. asbestos (responsible for mesothelioma, lung cancers and other lung problems).

Other volatile organic compounds also cause cancer, neurological issues, and damage to kidneys, liver, skin, and other organs.

Health impact like TB, malaria

The report reveals that the health impact of pollution is the same or higher than some of the most dangerous diseases worldwide, such as malaria or tuberculosis, threatening millions of lives.

“The report underscores the need to fully recognize the health impacts caused by toxic pollution at this critical juncture. Life-threatening pollution is likely to increase as the global economy exerts an ever-increasing pressure on industry to meet growing demands. The damage will be greatest in many low and middle-income countries, where industrial pollution prevention regulations and measures have not kept pace,” Richard Fuller, president of the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, said in a statement.

Dr. Stephen Robinson, Green Cross Switzerland unit manager for Waste, Legacy, said that although it affects nearly 125 million people worldwide, pollution remains “one of the most under-recognized global problems.”

Blacksmith and Green Cross, however, said in the report that the number of affected people is “by no means conclusive, but can be taken as indicative of the potential scale of the problem."

Robinson lamented that while governments devote much time and resources to combating malaria and tuberculosis, “the striking fact is that international and local government action on these diseases greatly outpaces the attention given to toxic sites, which, as demonstrated in this report, contribute greatly to the global burden of disease.”

Funded by the European Union, the World Bank and Green Cross, Blacksmith investigated more than 2,600 sites in 49 low- and middle-income countries in most regions of the world. Only North Africa and the Middle East are not represented due to what investigators called “security concerns.” The researchers then analyzed data from their own field studies at toxic sites and combined that with census data as well as epidemiological studies to extrapolate an estimate of the health problems involved.

The report found out that smaller companies that produce products for local markets tended to have the biggest negative health impact.

Using the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) —a measure of the number of years deducted from an individual’s healthy lifespan because of sickness, disability or early death — the researchers calculated that more than 17 million years of healthy life in 49 countries were lost because of pollutants caused by the 10 identified industries examined.

In comparison, the DALY for malaria is 14 million; 25 million for tuberculosis; and nearly 29 million for HIV.

DALYs allow for comparisons to be drawn between different types of public health risks, taking into account both the severity and duration of a given disease. Chronic headaches for example are given a lower value in the DALY metric than more severe health outcomes such as blindness or cancer.

The report also said it is easier to diagnose and count people with HIV than it is to count the number of children whose brain development is being slowly stunted by chronic exposure to lead from varied industrial sources.

The top 10 list of polluting industries, says the report, illustrates the tremendous burden put on the health of the world’s population by the release of toxic pollutants into the air, water and soil from industrial and mining processes.

“The lack of investigation and quantification of the human health impacts of contaminated sites have left an often-marginalized population with few resources to address this growing problem. Sadly, health impacts from environmental pollution often affect the most vulnerable, especially children, within these already neglected populations,” the report said.

One goal of the report, according to Blacksmith and Green Cross, is “to give a voice to this marginalized population that is in danger from toxic pollutants.”

WHO estimated that environmental exposures contribute to 19 percent of cancer incidence worldwide.

More than 500 sites were found to be polluted by lead, putting an estimated 16 million people at risk. The report said that the top sources of lead pollution are lead smelting, mining and ore processing, industrial estates and lead-acid battery recycling and manufacturing.

“Global production of lead was expected to increase nine percent in 2011 to 4.52 million tons, due to increases in China, India and Mexico, with China accounting for one-half of all lead mining production,” said Robinson.

He said increasing quantities of lead are being recycled but often recycling occurs at uncontrolled or poorly controlled facilities in the informal economic sector, even at home, making lead reprocessing itself a big problem in many countries.

The report also showed that people in richer countries can also be at risk if they travel on leaded fuel or use lead-glazed pottery.

“Making the connection between economics and human health is easy — the cost of illness and the loss of productivity due to disease and death is a huge and preventable economic burden,” the report concluded.