With oil spills, nuclear plant meltdowns, chemical waste dumped and buried beneath towns, the truly toxic threat of environmental pollution is the stuff of horror stories. Along with the abstract, academic knowledge of the long term harmful effects of pollution that will continue to affect our future generations, we're also beginning to see the immediately obvious impacts such as diseases, shortened life expectancy, and environmental degradation.
A report conducted in 2013 by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, in conjunction with Green Cross Switzerland - two environmental non-profits - provides a list of the most polluted places on earth. Apart from increasing awareness of the wide-spread - and spreading - problem of toxic pollution, both organizations also offer solutions, suggesting preventive actions to remedy existing toxic threats and, perhaps more effectively, prevent them. This includes financial and infrastructural support to better equip these polluted regions and their communities with more advanced systems of reducing toxic emissions and repairing the damage done.
The report estimates that globally, over 200 million people are affected by toxic pollution which is responsible for 23% of deaths in developing nations, with 80% of regularly reported diseases also attributed to environmental risk factors, these being caused primarily by the toxic chemicals released into the environment through industrial waste.
And with mostly low-income communities inhabiting these waste-filled regions, it’s not just an environmental issue; it’s unavoidably, a socio-political one. With 33% of diseases affecting children caused by deplorable living conditions aggravated by a toxic and polluted environment, it's imperative that actions to address and prevent toxic pollution be taken, and while it may seem a tough battle to win there’s hope in knowing that any great, corrective effort first begins with the awareness that it’s needed.
The following places listed here have been dubbed by the Blacksmith Institute as “The Top 10 Toxic Threats”, which are notorious for their degraded environment, high level of emissions of toxic chemicals, and the unfortunate symptoms these cause the communities that reside in them.Through elucidating them here, we learn of the extent of the damage taking place in these not-so-far away places. And most of all, we learn that these modern day wastelands are what many call home.
10 Norilsk, Russia
Historically an immense mining site, from 1935 to 1956, much of the mining in the city of Norilsk was done trough the forced labor of prisoners. Today, workers still extract large quantities of nickel, copper, and cobalt. As a result of the mining and smelting operations, up to 100 tons of nickel and copper oxides are emitted into the air every year. For people in Norilsk, this has resulted in numerous ailments and with the average life expectancy of factory workers 10 years shorter than the Russian average, the growing health risks are hard to ignore. It’s estimated that over 130,00 of the city’s residents are currently exposed to the harmful chemicals in in the air that lead to increased risk of respiratory diseases and lung cancer.
9 Niger River Delta, Nigeria
The Niger River Delta has been a primary site of petroleum operations since the late 1950’s and has experienced almost 7,000 oil spills in about 30 years. The oil and hydrocarbons deposited into the river are known to cause infertility and cancer in humans. These repeated oil spills are attributed to old and poorly constructed infrastructures and general underinvestment in machine and pipeline maintenance. In 2008, the Nigerian government introduced a Petroleum Industry Bill which imposes provisions on the oil industry for its impact on the local communities and the environment. The results and effects of said bill are yet to be determined.
8 Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina
As many as 200,000 people live near the Matanza Riachuelo river in areas considred uninhabitable. That’s because over 150,000 industries are currently releasing chemical waste into the river. This exposure to toxins has affected the residents near the site with respiratory diseases and cancer. Currently, the World Bank is funding a billion dollar restorative effort to remove industrial waste from the river and improve sanitation in the neighboring communities.
7 7.Kalimantan, Indonesia
Gold-mining is the source of income for over 40,000 people in Kalimantan, and annually, over 1,000 tons of mercury are released from this process and spread to the surrounding environment. This accounts for 30 percent of human-produced mercury emissions on earth! To help address this problem, the Blacksmith Institute in collaboration with other organizations have introduced educational programs to better train miners to reduce their level of toxic emissions and strengthen their own protection against harmful toxins.
6 Kabwe, Zambia
The city of Kabwe was once aggressively mined for lead deposits throughout the 20th century. The mining and smelting operations that took over the city inevitably dispersed large quantities of lead in the form of dust particles to the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that these major mining operations are now closed down the aftermath lingers, affecting children who play in the soil the most. The children of Kabwe have up to 10 times the recommended level of lead in their blood.
5 Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
The city of Hazaribagh is home to over 200 leather tanneries within a concentrated area of land, which contaminate the water, soil, and air after 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste are deposited from these tanneries into the Buriganga river daily. Among the numerous harmful chemicals swimming in the river, is hexavalent chromium, which is known to cause cancer. The over 8,000 workers employed at these tanneries are afflicted with rashes, itchiness, and prematurely aging skin, among other diseases.
4 Dzerzhinsk, Russia
Dzerzhinsk, Russia was historically a top site for chemical manufacturing during the country’s Soviet epoch. Between the years 1930 and 1998, about 300,000 tons of toxic waste were deposited into the soil. Due to the toxic levels found in the city’s groundwater and air, residents run the risk of eye, lung, and kidney cancers as well as lowered life expectancy to an astonishing 47 years for women and 42 for men. The Russian government has taken measures to close several of the chemical manufacturing plants in an effort to relieve the levels of contamination.
3 Citarum River Basin, Indonesia
At 13,000 square kilometers, the Citarum River comes into contact with up to 9 million people. Both domestic and industrial waste and contaminants are deposited into the river constantly, resulting in high levels of lead, mercury, and other radioactive chemicals in the water. The Citarum is essential one great landfill where hundreds of industrial plants and thousands of people discharge their waste, contaminating the water used for irrigation and drinking, resulting in numerous illnesses. The Indonesian government has implemented a 50 billion-dollar restorative effort to decontaminate the Citarum river over the course of 15 years.
2 Chernobyl, Ukraine
The 1986 nuclear disaster - that unleashed 100 times the radiation seen in the nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki - marks Chernobyl as one of the most polluted places on earth. About 270,000 people live in areas classified as strictly controlled zones. Among the long-term repercussions of so devastating a calamity, thyroid cancer (some 4,000 reported cases), leukemia, solid cancer, and death have been the most prevelant. To help ease the strain on the Ukraine peoples, Green Cross Switzerland has implemented medical, psychological, and educational aid programs as well as medical staff visits to affected sites.
1 Agbogbloshie, Ghana
Dubbed “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the citizens of Ghana , Agbogbloshie is the second largest electronic waste processing site in West Africa and imports 215,000 tons of consumer electronics annually. While half of this imported waste can be resold for parts, the rest must be recycled. One of the primary (and most detrimental) methods for recycling the copper from wire cables is to burn off the protective covering. Since the wire cables contain harmful metals - commonly lead - the result of burning them is the spread of harmful metals into the soil, the fumes of which are also carried over by the smoke in the air during the burning process. These harmful chemicals affect as many as 250,000 people. High levels of lead are known to cause vomiting, muscle weakness, seizures, and in severe cases, comas . The Blacksmith Institute, along with partnering organizations, have implemented wire stripping tools and are currently working on introducing work stations with wire-stripping machines. These corrective efforts are but a few of those already in action. The toxic threat is real and we’ll need just as a great an erosive force to combat it.