Urban wastelands: The world’s 10 most polluted places.

Bryan Walsh Climate change may get most of the attention, but the biggest environmental risk to human health today isn’t global warming. It’s industrial pollution, often in poor cities and towns where factories, power plants and chemical facilities face little to no regulation. A new report from the Blacksmith Institute—an NGO that addresses industrial pollution—estimates that industrial pollution poses a health risk to more than 200 million people around the world, often through elevated levels of cancer, respiratory disease and other illnesses. The report names and shames ten of the most polluted places on the planet, which range from the oil-contaminated Niger Delta in Nigeria to the badly polluted Soviet-era industrial town of Dzerzhinsk in Russia. Life in these places can be short and brutal, but the good news is that cleaning up this sort of old industrial pollution is often much cheaper and easier than dealing with the pervasive problem of climate change. The international community just has to make it happen. Agbogbloshie, Ghana We think of our cell phones and laptops as clean technology, but they contain trace amounts of valuable metals like copper and gold. And when junked electronics are processed by the very poor, out in the open, they can lead to dangerous levels of pollution. That’s what happens at the Agbogbloshie dump site outside Accra, the capital of Ghana. Sheathed cables are burnt in the open to get at the copper material inside, often using Styrofoam packaging as fuel. Those cables contain heavy metals like lead, which can migrate from the smoke into the soil. Samples taken from around Agbogbloshie indicate lead levels as high as 18,125 parts per million—as much as 45 times higher than U.S. standards. As many as 250,000 Ghanaians might be at risk. Citarum River, Indonesia A main artery of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, a city of nearly 10 million, the Citarum River is contaminated with a range of pollutants, from both industrial and domestic sources. The Blacksmith Institute has found lead levels in the river that are more than 1,000 times EPA standards, and other research has found high concentrations of toxic metals like aluminum, manganese and iron. Fortunately, the Indonesian government has begun the work of cleaning up the Citarum, thanks in part to a $500 million loan package from the Asian Development Bank. Chernobyl, Ukraine Internationally recognized as the worst nuclear disaster in history, the Chernobyl meltdown released more than 100 times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 19-mile exclusion area around the plant remains largely uninhabited nearly 20 years after the catastrophe, and officials believe the accident might have lead to some 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer. Today over a dozen artificial radionuclides can be detected in the surface soil around the plant. While the damage from Chernobyl didn’t turn out to be as serious as many researchers feared when the meltdown occurred, the accident is still a reminder of the long-term dangers of poorly-run nuclear plants. Bumper cars remain abandoned in the empty town of Pripyat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on March 25, 2011 in Pripyat, Ukraine. Dzerzhinsk, Russia Home to the Soviet Union’s principal site for chemical manufacturing—including chemical weapons—Dzerzhinsk shows the scars. An estimated 300,000 tons of chemical waste were improperly disposed of in and around the city between 1930 and 1998. Water samples taken in the city in 2007 showed levels of dioxins and phenols that were thousands of times above recommended levels—something that led the Guinness Book of World Records to name Dzerzhinsk as the most polluted city on the globe that year. Concentrations of toxic phenol have led to elevated levels of diseases and cancers of the eyes, lungs and kidneys. A 2006 survey found that life expectancy in the city—which has a population of 245,000 people—was 47 for women and 42 for men. The Russian city of Dzerzhinsk is one of the most polluted in the world. Hazaribagh, Bangladesh Up to 95% of the registered tanneries in Bangladesh are located in and around Hazaribagh, a neighborhood in the country’s capital of Dhaka. Most use outdated processing methods, and the tanneries dump 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste each day, including the cancer-causing toxin hexavalent chromium, into Dhaka’s main river. Tannery workers in Hazaribagh live on top of contaminated streams and canals, while informal recyclers burn scraps of leather, further polluting the air. As a result, residents face elevated rates of skin and respiratory diseases, as well as acid burns, rashes, dizziness and nausea. Bangladeshi tannery workers sit amidst smoke as they labour at a temporary tannery in the Hazaribagh District of Dhaka on October 6, 2012. Kabwe, Zambia Lead blood concentrations in Kabwe have been found at levels 60% higher than the amount considered fatal, a result of contamination from decades of unsafe lead mining in the region. Mining, processing and smelting of lead was largely unregulated throughout the 20th century, leading to intense amounts of the toxic metal settling in the soils around Kabwe. Though the main mine has been closed, artisanal mining still occurs in tailing piles in the city, worsening the problem. Lead blood concentrations in Kabwe have been found in excess of 200 ug/dl—higher than the 120 ug/dl levels that can be fatal. Some progress is being made, however, thanks to a $26 million remediation program carried out between 2003 and 2011. Kalimantan, Indonesia Central and South Kalimantan have been poisoned by years of small-scale gold mining. The miners use mercury in their rudimentary smelting process, releasing as much as 1,000 tons of the toxic chemicals into the air each year. Worse, many miners smelt inside their homes, where the mercury vapor is trapped. The metal can also be released into area waterways, where it can accumulate in fish and water. A 2008 study found concentrations of mercury in the Kahayan River in central Kalimantan more than twice Indonesia’s recommended standard. In recent years, however, the Indonesian government has taken steps to limit man-made mercury emissions, working with miners to make their smelting process safer. An excavator loads coal to a truck at Pit Pelican of Kaltim Prima Coal in Sangata, Kutai Timur Regency, East Kalimantan province, Indonesia, in 2007. Matanza-Riachuelo, Argentina An estimated 15,000 industries actively release effluent into the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin, which runs through the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. A 2008 study found that soil on the banks of the river contained levels of zinc, lead, copper, nickel and chromium that were all above recommended values. About 60% of the 20,000 people who reside near the river basin live in territory that has been deemed unsuitable for human habitation, leading to higher levels of diarrheal diseases, respiratory illnesses and cancer. It doesn’t help that residents have few sources of drinking water, leaving them dependent on the polluted river. The problem is improving, however, thanks in part to a billion-dollar World Bank-funded effort. A man looks down over a pile of garbage along the banks of the Riachuelo River near Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 2, 2009. Niger River Delta, Nigeria The Delta is home to much of Nigeria’s oil industry—about 2 million barrels of oil are extracted from the area each day—and it has become the site of major pollution from hydrocarbons. Between 1976 and 2001 there were nearly 7,000 incidents involving oil spills in which most of the oil was never recovered, and an average of 240,000 barrels a year are spilled into the Niger delta, often because of mechanical failure or oil pirates. The spills contaminate the water, air and land with carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. A 2013 article estimates that widespread pollution from the spills could have an impact on crops and lead to a 24% increase in childhood malnutrition. Crude oil contamination can also cause infertility and cancer. Smoke rises as an illegal oil refinery burns after a military chase in a windy creek near river Nun in Nigeria's oil state of Bayelsa, December 6, 2012. Norilsk, Russia An industrial city in northern Russia founded in 1935, Norilsk contained the world’s largest heavy metals smelting complex as of the early 2000s. Nearly 500 tons each of carbon and nickel oxides, along with 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide are released annually into the air. That’s one reason why life expectancy for factory workers in Norilsk is 10 years below the Russian average, which is hardly robust anyway at just 69 years, compared to nearly 79 years in the U.S. It’s estimated that over 130,000 local residents are exposed to particulates and metal pollution each day, leading to increased levels of respiratory disease and cancer. Smoke stacks for a nickel-refinery spew sulfur dioxide into the environment July 21, 2002 in Norilsk, Russia.

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