Friday 8 November 2013

The ten most polluted places on Earth.

Each year since 2006 two environmental groups, the US based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland have produced an annual report into some of the world's most polluted places. This year's report, titled The World's Worst 2013: The Top Ten Toxic Threats, highlights ten sites across the world, deemed to be the worst polluted sites in their own right or noteworthy examples of types of polluted sites occurring at multiple locations. 

Sites included in the 2013 report. Blacksmith Institute & Green Cross Switzerland (2013).

The Agbogbloshie Dumpsite in Accra, Ghana is the second largest electronic waste recycling area in West Africa, handling much of the 215 000 tons of electronic waste Ghana imports each year as well as  the 129 000 tons produced domestically. Used electronic items are either reconditioned and resold or broken down for their metal content. A wide range of electronic items a handled, requiring a wide range of skills and techniques, and leading to the generation of a range of waste. Of particular concern is the recycling of copper from wiring, which is typically achieved by burning off the plastic sheathing, often using styrofoam packaging as a fuel. This produces toxic fumes from both the burning of the styrofoam and plastic, and from metal particles in the smoke. The site suffers from very high levels of soil contamination, with high levels of lead and other metals, affecting somewhere between 40 000 and 250 000 people living on and around the site. The Blacksmith Institute and Green Advocacy Ghana are working to introduce mechanized wire striping processes to the site.

Children on the Agbogbloshie Dumpsite. Blacksmith Institute & Green Cross Switzerland (2013).

Chernobyl in the Ukraine is recognized as the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. In April 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station suffered a massive meltdown, releasing more than 100 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. A 30 km exclusion zone still exists around the site of the former power plant, and the reactor was encased in a concrete casing. However this casing was only intended as a temporary measure, and is known to be leaking in a number of places. The ground surrounding the site is also known to be contaminated with radionuclides such as cesium-137, which could potentially migrate to food crops grown in adjacent areas. Work has recently begun by the French company Novarka to build a steal containment structure around the original concrete casing, which should provide increased protection for the next 100 years. 

Memorial at the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Blacksmith Institute & Green Cross Switzerland (2013).

The Citarum River Basin in West Java covers around 13 000 km² and provides around 80% of the water needs of Jakarta. The area is home to around 9 million people, and produces around 5% of Indonesia's rice. It is also home to around 2000 factories. The waters of the basin are known to be heavily contaminated with aluminum, manganese, iron and other metals. The Indonesian Government  is working on a major rehabilitation and restoration project for the basin, financed by US$500 billion in loans from the Asian Development Bank.

Pollution on the Citarum River near Jakarta. Coastal Care.

The city of Dzerzhinsk, about 400 km east of Moscow, is a major center in the Russian chemical industry, and during the Cold War was also a center of manufacturing for chemical weapons.It is thought that between 1930 and 1998 around 300 000 tons of chemical waste were landfilled in and around Dzerhinsk, resulting in a wide variety of toxic chemicals being released into groundwater. The city has a population of about 245 000 people, with life expectancies of 42 for men and 47 for women. Since 2007 the Dzerzhinsk has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most polluted city. As yet little has been done to rectify this situation, although the Russian government has announced plans to close outdated facilities and clean up contaminated land left from the Soviet era.

The location of Dzerzhinsk. Google Maps.

Hazaribagh in Bangladesh is home to 90% of the countries tanneries (leather processing plants), together employing between 9000 and 12 000 people out of a population of around 185 000 (though this is probably an underestimate, due to a number of informal settlements in the area). They also produce around 22 000 liters of toxic waste per day, including significant quantities of hexavalent chromium, which can lead to a variety of skin and respiratory diseases as well as being highly carcinogenic. Residents are also frequently prone to acid burns from tannery runoff, as well as the effects of a variety of fumes.

Residents of Hazaribagh live along side high levels of pollution including hexavalent chromium. Blacksmith Institute & Green Cross Switzerland (2013).

Kabwe is the second largest city in Zambia and was a center of (largely unregulated) lead mining and smelting from 1902 till the mid-1990s. There is still significant artisanal lead mining (informal, unregulated mining seldom featuring any form of heath and safety procedures), much of it on the spoil heaps of the former mine sites. The whole city suffers from high levels of lead pollution, principally in the from of lead dust, which is found in soils across the entire area. Testing has shown significant levels of lead in the blood of the population, particularly in that of children, who are more at risk from lead dust in soils as they play close to the ground. The Zambian Government has undertook a US$26 million remediation project in the area from 2003-2011, funded by the World Bank and Nordic Development Fund, but significant pollution problems remain.

Artisanal lead mining on a tailings dump at Kabwe in Zambia. Blacksmith Institute & Green Cross Switzerland (2013).

Kalimantan is the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo and a significant center of artisanal gold mining. In the provinces of Central and South Kalimantan around 43 000 people are employed in the industry. The vast majority of these extract gold from ore using the mercury amalgam technique, which involves mixing ground up ore with mercury to extract the gold, then heating the resultant product ro burn off the mercury. It is estimated that Kalimantan produces around 1000 tons of mercury pollution per year, around a third of the global total. Mercury is extremely toxic and once vaporized can travel long distances as an areal pollutant. It is also particularly lethal in aquatic ecosystems, particularly as it accumulates in the bodies of fish which are then often consumed by humans, and has been found at high levels in the Kahayan River in Central Kalimantan. Indonesia signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which obliges it to limit mercury emissions, in October this year, and the Indonesian Government is working with the Blacksmith Institute, Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta and other NGOs to mitigate mercury release and exposure in the region.

An unregulated gold mine in Kalimantan. Philip Hatch-Barnwell

The Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin in Argentina hosts about 15 000 industrial sites, including many chemical plants, over a 60 km stretch of river, which cuts through part of the city of Buenos Aires. The level and type of pollution in the river fluctuates, but soils from the river bank have been shown to contain dangerously high levels of zinc, lead, copper, nickel, and chromium. Tests on well water from the river basin suggest that it should not be considered fit for human consumption and around 12 000 people are thought to be living in areas unsuitable for human habitation. There is little infrastructure in the area, and few options besides the drinking of well water. A US$ 1 billion project funded by the world bank aims to tackle sanitation and industrial pollutant abatement in the basin.

Residences by the Riachuelo River. The Argentina Independent.

The Niger Delta covers about 70 000 km² (roughly 8% of Nigeria's total landmass), and produces around 2 million barrels of crude oil per day, an industry that has existed in the area since the 1950s. An average of 240 000 barrels of oil are lost into the environment each year, creating massive levels of groundwater and soil pollution. This pollution is in itself highly toxic and leads to a variety of chronic health problems, but in the Niger Delta it is at such high levels that in many places agriculture and aquaculture (fish farming) have become impossible or severely curtailed, creating a food security crisis. Little of the wealth generated by the oil extraction process has reached the people of the Delta and there  are no realistic plans to remediate the ongoing crisis.

Oil pouring from a pipeline at Dadabili on the Niger Delta in April 2011. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters.

The city of Norilsk in Russia was founded in 1935 as a Soviet slave labour camp, and has since grown into the second largest city in the Arctic Circle. The city is a major producer of heavy metals, using Soviet-era smelting technologies with almost no environmental protection. Around 130 000 residents are exposed to high levels of sulphur dioxide, copper and nickel pollution. The company responsible for the industrial sites, Norilsk Nickel, controls around 33% of the world's nickel supplies and is one of Russia's largest exporters of non-ferrous metals. Limited investments in reducing emissions have been made, but no attempts at remediating past pollution.

The Norilsk Nickel plant in Norilsk, in the Russian Arctic. George Washington University.

See also Two killed in escalating violence over mining in Davao del Sur Province, Mindanao, the PhilippinesProtests over environmental problems at Indian-owned Mozambique coal mineHuman Rights Watch reports on child labour in the Tanzanian gold mining industryThirty seven dead after collapse at gold mine in the Central African Republic and Amnesty International reports on the mining industry in Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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