The 2015 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report is the tenth in an annual series published by Green Cross Switzerland and Pure Earth (formerly Blacksmith Institute). Over the past decade, this series identified and drew attention to the worst, and most dangerously polluted places on the planet, while documenting and quantifying the startling health and human impacts of this neglected problem. The “World’s Worst” series of reports has effectively raised global awareness about the extent and impacts of toxic pollution in low-and middle-income countries.
This year we present an update on the six pollutants that pose an outsized threat to human health. The pollutants—lead, radionuclides, mercury, hexavalent chromium, pesticides and cadmium—collectively affect the health of 95 million people and account for 14,750,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years lost in low and middle-income countries. These pollutants result in debilitating, life-threatening diseases and death. The pollutants, which were highlighted in 2010, still clearly stand out among the others around the world. These affect more people at more sites at a greater dose than other pollutants. Their toxicological profiles are well defined and severe. In almost all cases, affordable interventions exist to mitigate the worst exposures from sites exhibiting these contaminants. There is one change in this year’s top list: cadmium replaces arsenic.
This year’s report also examines how advances in data gathering and analysis on the scope and impact of pollution, improve our understanding of the scale of these toxic threats. The 2012 Worst Polluted report established the first set of figures for the health burden of toxic pollution at contaminated sites, by estimating for this pollution—the basic parameter developed by the World Health Organization for assessing the Global Burden of Disease—the Disability Adjusted Life Year or DALY. In the years since then, these DALY estimates have been expanded and refined, resulting in broad acceptance by the international health community of this evidence of the impacts of toxic pollutants. Similar DALY estimates are now available for other forms of pollution, demonstrating the extent of overall damage caused by multiple substances. In this context, the number of people exposed to dangerous levels of pollution is increasing, with an estimated 1 in 7 deaths in 2012 resulting from exposure to soil, water, air and/or chemical pollution.
The improved data and analysis on pollution has resulted in some changes but little has happened in terms of significant cleanup. Strikingly, as progress is made on some of the classic communicable diseases in developing countries (malaria, HIV, Tuberculosis), the proportion of the overall burden of disease attributable to toxic threats is increasing. In some ways, this reflects a version of the “epidemiological transition” but it also emphasizes again the growing urgency of tackling toxic pollution. Stubborn challenges remain in dealing with recycling lead from used batteries, while vehicle numbers continue to grow worldwide. Gold prices are still high and consequently emissions of mercury from small-scale gold mining will continue to increase and migrate globally. There has been very little progress in dealing with problems of heavy metals from poorly managed mining and processing or with dumps of obsolete or discarded pesticides. In addition, the scale and health impacts of air pollution continue to multiply, and water quality issues worldwide show little improvement. Forreasons such as these, it is important that we keep the focus on the call for remediation action.