Pollution more deadly than malaria or ebola

Say the word “ebola” and people freak out, even though more people have been married to TV talk show host Larry King than have died of ebola in the US. But what most of us don’t realize is that pollution around the world kills almost 9 million people every year and has significant impact on the health of 200 million more, including brain damage from exposure to lead, mercury, and pesticides.

According to a new report, most of the burden of pollution falls on people living in poor countries. The report is a collaboration between the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution. the Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth and the Green Cross of Switzerland.

“Most of the countries that are struggling with this have very limited resources to tackle the problem,” says David Hanrahan, senior technical adviser to GAHP. “In smaller, poorer countries, it may not amount to more than a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s very, very little in comparison to what developed countries in Europe or North America spend, and it’s also small compared to other international aid flows.”

We at ecomento focus on carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles that contribute to global climate change. But the authors of the report say the most immediate health risks come from pollution found in the ground in places where the global economy has allowed its waste products to accumulate. And it says fixing some of those problems would take very little money.

For instance, in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, a village, the soil is saturated with lead left over from recycling and small-scale smelting. Working with local partners, Blacksmith covered the soil with a “geotech” fabric (a semi-permeable material) then placed new dirt over the top. Toxicity levels dropped 30% in three months, all for about $20 per villager.

Lead poisoning was also a primary concern in Thiaroye Sur Mer in Senegal, where the soil had become 20% lead after decades of reclaiming lead from old car batteries by hand. The top soil was removed and trucked to a hazardous containment site. Then a collection of international aid agencies provided villagers with hydroponic systems and training so they could grow vegetables that did not contain harmful lead deposits.

Ghana has become infamous as a dumping ground for old electronics, particularly in the area around Agbogbloshie where pickers used to burn them to get at the internal components for recycling. In the process, they were exposed to high levels of PCBs, lead, mercury and other carcinogens. The smoke from the plastic housings around old TVs and computers was especially toxic. Now, for a small investment, inexpensive recycling machines have reduced or eliminated those dangers.

“Removing the threat of chronic exposure to high-levels of toxic pollutants can be achieved in a matter of months for a cost of $10 to $20 per person,” says Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute. “All that is needed to scale up in many locations is additional funding.”

Even better is keeping hazardous materials out the environment in the first place. Electronics retailer BestBuy has put itself in the forefront of the campaign to recycle electronics responsibly. In partnership with Electronics Recyclers International, a certified e-Stewards recycler, it has collected over a billion pounds of discarded electronics and plans to collect another 2 billion pounds over the next 6 years. That’s over 1.5 million tons of potentially hazardous waste kept out of local and foreign environments.

As electric and plug in vehicles become more mainstream, we as consumers should insist that the companies we buy our cars from make adequate provision for recycling the electronic systems and batteries in the vehicles they produce.