Fighting pollution critical to fight against diseases of poverty

Ghanaians 'recycle' computers, batteries and other electronic waste . Credit: Basel Action Network

This fall, the international community will gather in New York City at the United Nations to officially endorse a game plan, called the Sustainable Development Goals, aimed at reducing poverty and inequity over the next 15 years.

The need to ensure people are able to live in healthy environments, cited as a goal (number 7) in the previous strategy established in the year 2000 and known as the Millennium Development Goals, is now seen as critical to success in this arena.

Environmental contributions to poverty and suffering have not been high on the agenda for the mainstream development community. The last 15 years has been focused mostly on achieving specific health gains such as reducing maternal and child death rates globally.

Jack Caravanos in Peru tracking down contamination. Credit: Pure Earth.

Jack Caravanos in Peru tracking down contamination. Credit: Pure Earth.

Jack Caravanos thinks it is crucial that the development and humanitarian community embrace environmentalism.

Are you reading this post from the comfort of your office or living room in a developed country? If so, take a moment to consider the air that you’re breathing and the water you’re drinking.

If you were in a developing country such as India, that air and water might be loaded with hexavalent chromium, a chemical associated with respiratory problems and cancer. And the dirt you liked to play in as a kid? In many developing countries, soil is contaminated with lead from unsafe recycling of car batteries.

In a seminar at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) on May 27 entitled “Identifying toxic waste sites and quantifying their global burden of disease in low- and middle-income countries,” Caravanos described how pollution is wreaking havoc on the health of communities around the world.

Caravanos is a Professor of Environmental Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and a collaborator on the Global Burden of Disease study led by IHME. For 10 years, he has been working with the NGO Pure Earth, formerly known as the Blacksmith Institute, to develop metrics for contamination of toxic waste sites.

One example Caravanos cited is the city of Kabwe, Zambia. For nearly 100 years, a government lead mine and smelter have been contaminating the city of 300,000 people. The lead mine closed in 1994, but the hazardous waste from it continues to sicken and kill people in the city. Lead is a potent neurotoxin. Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to its harmful effects. Caravanos said that testing revealed children in Kabwe had seven times the recommended amount of lead in their bloodstreams.

Another source of lead poisoning in low- and middle-income countries is informal car battery recycling, which is an important source of income for many families. People break apart car batteries in their backyards or common areas, then recover and sell the valuable lead within. This leads to contamination of air, water, soil, and food.

Caravanos discussed another lead poisoning emergency in Zamfara State, Nigeria. Artisanal mining of the gold in this area, which contains unusually high levels of lead, has released extensive amounts of this toxin into the environment.

Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) discovered this epidemic when they asked the community to allow them to vaccinate their children. The leaders informed them that the children had died. Prior to its intervention in 2010, MSF estimates that 400 children died from lead poisoning. Caravanos noted that deaths from lead poisoning are rare, which underscores the gravity of the situation.

Caravanos also discussed his visits to artisanal gold mining and processing sites in Peru. Miners collect gold in the Amazon and combine it with mercury, then travel to the cities to process the ore. This process converts mercury to methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin. Caravanos and his team collected soil samples near one of these processing sites. The tests revealed high levels of methylmercury in the soil outside the processing site, where children were playing.

Artisanal miners and their families are particularly at risk from exposure to methylmercury. When children are exposed in the womb, methylmercury can interfere with their cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual-spatial skills.

Another illustration of how pollution is threatening population health in the developing world is the case of tanneries in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Many different types of pollutants come from tanneries, such as mercury, arsenic, and chromium. Chromium, a chemical used to strengthen leather products, is one of the most concerning. Its byproduct is hexavalent chromium, which can cause lung cancer, respiratory problems, neurological damage, and other health effects. This dangerous chemical has contaminated the water supply around the factories that produce it, which are often located near tanneries in developing countries.

Caravanos is discussing ways to collaborate with researchers from the Global Burden of Disease study to improve its measurement of the health effects of pollution. This collaboration has the potential to produce valuable new insights in the field of global health.

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About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.