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World's worst pollution problems

Nov 16, 2011

The World's Worst Toxic Pollution Problems 2011 report reveals that contrary to popular belief, most toxic hotspots result from poorly regulated, locally owned small and medium scale operations, rather than large multinational corporations.

The World's Worst Toxic Pollution Problems 2011

Published by:  Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross, Switzerland


The World’s Worst Toxic Pollution Problems 2011 report is the latest in a series of annual reports documenting global pollution issues. For the first time, a report has calculated the health impacts of toxic sites. The calculations show that people impacted by the polluted sites analyzed in the report could lose an average of 12.7 years to death or disability.

The report offers the most targeted picture of pollution’s toll to date, and is a crucial step in prioritizing life-saving cleanup efforts.

The report has covered over 2,200 sites where toxic pollution exists in levels above internationally accepted health standards.

The key to this report is that it calculates the impact of pollution in terms of years of life lost and years spent in poor health, whereas much of the current research in environmental health focuses only on deaths.

Toxic pollution often leads to crippling disability. The sum of life years lost and years lived with disability is called a Disability-Adjusted Life Year or DALY. The DALY offers a clearer picture of pollution’s toll. For example, the World Health Organization has estimated that globally, toxic chemical exposure was responsible for 4.9 million deaths and 86 million DALYs in 2004. This latter figure suggests that many millions of people live with disabilities caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

Key points

  • Toxic pollution caused by mining and industrial processes throughout the world poses an enormous health risk to affected populations. Pollutants from these processes, as well as from some naturally occurring sources, such as arsenic in groundwater, are responsible for a significant amount of deaths and diseases every year, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Many of the worst pollution problems stem not from multi-national companies, but from poorly regulated small-scale operations like artisanal mining, backyard metal recycling, and outdated or abandoned factories. This does not mean that high-income countries are not contributing significantly to the problem.
  • In most high-income countries, severely polluted sites have already been identified and remediated through programs such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Program. However, in many low- and middleincome countries, pollution hotspots are poorly documented, and sometimes are completely unknown to local and national governments.
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