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A focus on pollution

Posted 17/11/2010 by KatieJ

Just four metals and two groups of substances are said to jeopardize the health of more than 100m people around the world, according to a new report produced by the Blacksmith Institute in collaboration with Green Cross Switzerland.

And these two organisations should know a thing or two about environmental problems. Green Cross Switzerland is said to ‘facilitate overcoming the consequential damages caused by industrial and military disasters and the clean-up of contaminated sites from the period of the Cold War’; while the US headquartered Blacksmith Institute describes itself as ‘an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to solving life-threatening pollution issues in the developing world’.

In 2008, they originally highlighted the top 10 worst pollution problems, following this up in 2009 with a report describing case studies of successful clean-up projects. For their 2010 report, the focus has returned to pollution problems.

So what do these organisations have to say about this relatively small list of health-threatening pollutants?

Not unexpectedly the four metals are lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic, while pesticides and, rather more unexpectedly, radionuclides are also highlighted as major pollutants. A total of 2000 polluted sites have been identified in 40 countries, and the Blacksmith Institute has conducted in-country assessments at over 1000 of these sites.

Lead is top of the list with 10m people at risk at identified sites, although the estimated global impact is much higher at 18-22m people, based on an extrapolation of current site research and assessment coverage. For chromium, the figures are 8.6m at risk at identified sites, while the global impact is estimated at 15-19m people, while for chromium, the estimates are 7.3m locally, and 13-17m globally. Finally, arsenic puts an estimated 3.7m at risk in the vicinity of identified sites, and 5-9m globally, at risk.

In developed countries, these metals are well known for their potentially hazardous characteristics as indeed are pesticides, which are estimated to put 3.4m people at risk at identified sites and have a global impact on 5-8m people.

So far all the potential hazards are generally the result of human activities and as such there is the possibility of at least controlling if not reducing the size of the problem. Arsenic does present a problem in that it is also a naturally occurring contaminant of groundwater supplies in parts of Asia; it is therefore a less tractable problem in terms of conventional pollution control and reduction.

Certainly in parts of the developed world, the hazards of naturally occurring radionuclides are well known, but radionuclides are increasingly being produced as the byproducts of mining and industry and the development of nuclear power. In the developing world, these products of radioactive decay are estimated to put 3.3m people at risk at specific sites, while globally the number is 5-8m individuals - a similar level to those at risk from pesticides. As radionuclides are a naturally occurring pollutant, like arsenic to some degree, other methods are needed to control the risk.

What is required, according to the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland, is a greater awareness in the international community of these toxic issues, the available data and remediation efforts. Financial support will be essential if these problems are to be addressed, but of key importance is the development of appropriate cost-effective and efficient solutions for these problems.

Mitigating the effects of these pollutants is not an insurmountable task, according to the report writers, but it does need international cooperation. As an international organisation, the SCI will be focusing its efforts on issues such as these in its future strategy but it will be up to the individual researchers and innovators to identify and develop these solutions.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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