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Most polluted places on the planet

There are many badly polluted sites around the world. The following are among the most polluted in the world for each type of toxin:

Air pollution: Linfen, China

According to one World Bank report, 16 out of 20 of the world’s worst cities for air pollution are found in China and Linfen has the highest levels of pollution. This city, in China’s Shanxi Province, is at the centre of the nation’s coal industry. Here, emissions from vehicles and industry have created an atmosphere where people literally choke on coal dust. High levels of pollutants such as fly ash, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and arsenic are taking their toll on the greater city’s three million residents: clinics here see high levels of bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer and lead poisoning in children is alarmingly common.

Industrial chemicals: Bhopal, India

In terms of number of deaths, Bhopal remains the worst industrial accident yet. In December 1984, 40 tonnes of isocyanate gas escaped from a pesticide plant in this central Indian city of 1.8 million people. The accident killed nearly 4,000 people outright and the number of fatalities rose to 15,000 in following weeks. “More than 26 years have passed since the disaster, yet thousands in Bhopal continue to suffer and die from chronic illnesses, with as many as 500,000 people suffering ill health as a result,” says Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith a senior advisor to the National Toxics Network, an Australian NGO based in Bangalow NSW. “In 1989, Union Carbide [the US company responsible] agreed a financial settlement yet most victims didn’t get enough to cover medical expenses.

The site was never cleaned up and still contains the evaporation ponds where toxic effluent was dumped. The contaminated groundwater continues to poison residents today. High numbers of infants in the affected communities are born with congenital defects and cerebral palsy and residents drinking the contaminated groundwater have higher rate of skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.”

Mercury: Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia

The largest concentration of people at risk from mercury pollution is in Indonesia. Here, in Borneo’s Central Kalimantan province, mercury is commonly used to extract gold from ore by small-scale processing operations. According to the WWF, so-called artisanal gold mining (ASGM) here results in the emission of 45 tonnes of mercury into the environment annually. Around the world it accounts for over 900 tonnes of emissions – around 30 per cent of all mercury emissions. Gold miners mix liquid mercury with silt or ore from riverbeds that contains tiny flecks of gold.

The gold and mercury form an amalgam, from which the gold can be recovered by heating to drive off the mercury. However, this is often done inside homes and anyone nearby is at risk of inhaling the vapours. “There’s also lots of environmental damage, because the mercury finds its way into the environment, where it can be converted to methyl mercury, which is even more hazardous to human health when ingested,” says Professor Ian Rae, an expert on environmental pollution at the University of Melbourne. The United Nations is currently negotiating a treaty which will hopefully lead to better management of mercury, including its replacement in ASGM with safer alternatives, such as borax.

Pesticide: Kasargod, India

Endosulfan, an organic pesticide now banned in many countries, has been responsible for poisonings in Africa, India and Latin America, says Dr Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network. In West Africa, hundreds of cotton farmers have died as a result of exposure, and many others as a result of eating contaminated food, she says. “In Kasargod, in southern India, 20 years of aerial spraying of cashew nut plantations has left a legacy of disease, death and deformity. Numerous congenital, reproductive and long-term neurological and other effects have been experienced, including congenital deformities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, lowered IQ, delayed development (and) cancer.”

A survey by the Kasargod District Committee reported a disability rate 73% higher than the Kerala State average, with the rate of locomotor disability and mental retardation 107% higher. “The Kerala State Government is trying to provide treatment for those affected and have registered 2,000 victims. Compensation has been paid to some including the families of at least 135 victims who have died,” says Lloyd-Smith. “Despite the recent ban, endosulfan and its toxic metabolites are found across the globe in human breast milk (and) umbilical cord blood.” Following a phase out announced in 2010, endosulfan may be legally used with registration in Australia until October 12, 2012.

Lead: Tianying, China

Around the world, an estimated 19 million people are at risk from lead smelting operations while either using ore or recycling scrap metal. Tianying in China’s Anhui province is one of the centres of the nation’s lead mining and processing industry, and accounts for approximately half of Chinese production. Small-scale operations there have been notorious for disobeying regulations, which has resulted in lead concentrations in the air and soil to being 8.5 and 10 times higher than the national health standard.

The health of 140,000 people is at risk, and many residents are reported to suffer the effects of lead poisoning, which the Blacksmith Institute says includes “lead encephalopathy, lower IQs, short attention spans, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, impaired physical growth, hearing and visual problems, stomach aches, irritation of the colon, kidney malfunction, anaemia and brain damage.”

Hexavalent chromium: Sukinda, India

Hexavalent chromium (chromium VI), one of two forms of the metal, is a carcinogen which can cause or increase the chance of developing some kinds of cancer. Sukinda, in India’s state of Orissa, has 97% of India’s reserves of chromite ore, one of the only sources of chromium. It also has one of the world’s largest open-cast chromite mines.

According to the Blacksmith Institute, as of 2007, 12 mines continued to operate with no environmental management plans, spreading waste rock over the surrounding area and discharging untreated water into the rivers. Mine workers are habitually exposed to chromium VI contaminated dust and water and they have suffered gastrointestinal bleeding, tuberculosis, asthma, infertility and birth defects. In some cases, twenty times the international standard for chromium VI has been detected in drinking water. The Orissa Voluntary Health Association reports that around 85% of deaths in the mining areas and nearby industrial villages have a link to chromite mining operations.

Radiation: Chernobyl, Ukraine

In terms of scale of pollution and number of people affected, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown is truly staggering. In April that year, testing at the reactor led to a catastrophic accident. Thirty people were killed outright, 135,000 had to be evacuated and some estimates suggest that up to 5.5 million people across northern Europe may have suffered ill health as a result, although few health effects have been definitively proven, says Professor Rae from the University of Melbourne. A 30-km exclusion zone around the city remains dangerously radioactive and uninhabitable today.

John Pickrell
Source: ABC Environment

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