POLLUTION PROBLEM: Improperly used pesticides can lead to a host of health impacts, including those pictured, and lands such pollution at number three on a list of the world's worst pollution problems. Image: Courtesy of the Blacksmith Institute
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The price of gold affects more than global finances; it also drives the world's most toxic pollution problem, according to new research from the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental health group based in New York City. Miners in countries from across Africa and Southeast Asia use mercury to separate the precious metal from the surrounding rock and silt. To then separate the resulting amalgam of gold and mercury, heat must be applied to vaporize the mercury. Typically, heating occurs over an open gas flame, releasing the potent neurotoxic element into the atmosphere. What's more, the estimated 10 million to 20 million workers who mine for gold this way will all too often inhale the mercury, putting their health at profound risk.
"Small-scale gold mining contributes to one third of the mercury released into the environment today," says physicist Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland—Blacksmith's partner in the research and ranking—or nearly as much as coal burning by power plants. "This is continuing to increase because of rising gold prices."
The researchers estimate that more than 3.5 million people suffer from mercury-related health effects as a result of such artisanal gold mining, making it the world's worst toxic pollution problem in terms of number of people affected.
The toxic top 10:
- Mercury pollution from gold mining (3.5 million people)
- Lead pollution from industrial parks (nearly 3 million)
- Pesticides from agriculture (more than 2.2. million)
- Lead smelting (just under 2 million)
- Chromium pollution from leather tanning (more than 1.8 million)
- Mercury residue from other mining (more than 1.5 million)
- Lead pollution from mining (more than 1.2 million)
- Lead pollution from improper battery recycling (nearly one million)
- Arsenic in groundwater (at least 750,000)
- Pesticide manufacturing and storage (more than 700,000).
Notably, groundwater arsenic is the only naturally occurring pollution problem—and it is in ninth place. Put together, arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and pesticides are the leading causes of such toxic hot spots largely created by mining, metal smelting, chemical manufacture, agriculture, heavy industry, tanneries and waste disposal, among other activities.
"We find lead all over the world, we find arsenic all over the world, chromium from tanneries all over the world," says Blacksmith's Bret Ericson, who managed the three-year project. "These are not large-scale, multinational corporations that are responsible for this pollution. Typically, it's low income, small-scale industries who have no emissions controls," often because these outdated industries remain unregulated.
All told, an expanded list that also includes specialized activities such as chemical manufacturers and uranium mining finds that at least 100 million people worldwide suffer health effects or die from such pollution. "We anticipate that number growing as we continue the inventory work," Ericson says.
The list derives from Blacksmith's survey of more than 2,000 toxic sites in 47 different countries in the developing world. The researchers then ranked the sites and problems by "disability life-adjusted year," or DALY, which measures both early death and the impact of pollution-related disease. In essence, one DALY equals "one year of 'healthy' life lost," the researchers wrote in the report released on November 9.