10 Nations Reduce Pollution Deaths

03/06/2015 03:24 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Pollution in the air, soil and water has become the largest cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but a new report has hailed 10 countries for taking steps to reduce those death rates.

The report -- the Top Ten Countries Turning the Corner on Toxic Pollution 2014 -- marks a change from previous years in which the report focused on the ten worst polluters. The report authors include the New York non-profit group Pure Earth (formerly Blacksmith Institute), the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution (GAHP) and the organization Green Cross Switzerland.

The new report focuses on the limited but growing success some countries are having in pollution control rather than the failure to rein in industrial and other pollution, largely from from power plants, lead batteries, mining, tanneries and other sources.

Pollution killed 8.9 million people in 2012, said Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth, which also serves as secretariat for GAHP, whose members include the World Bank, Harvard School of Public Health, UN development and environment agencies, and many low- and middle-income countries.

One in seven people who died in 2012 died of pollution. This was more than the number of deaths from war or from TB, malaria and HIV/AAIDS combined. In fact, pollution kills 14 times as many people as AIDS.

Most pollution deaths came from unvented indoor cooking stoves - I have been inside hundreds of homes across the world from Nepal to India to Afghanistan to Haiti and seen women and children squatting in smoke-filled kitchens and hacking from breathing problems such as bronchitis, pneumonia and cancer.

Deaths also come from drinking water polluted by chemicals and by human waste.
These are deaths that wealthy Western countries have largely figured out how to avoid. Laws and regulations are enforced, public health services are active and technology addresses the threats before they poison our families. Solving pollution is actually cheap and easy to accomplish.

But poor countries lack the powerful law enforcement, skilled scientists and capital to intervene and end pollution. "In the West we have clean air and water thanks to the investments made in the 1960s and 70s" to control pollution, said Fuller. He explained that overseas, poor countries do not have the resources to protect their vulnerable peoples.

"But still, some examples give cause for celebration," said Fuller.

"This report celebrates and acknowledges 10 countries that have began to tackle pollution problems themselves," said Fuller in a press briefing. It's small compared to the growing burden of toxic waste generated as countries develop economically. But some of them are beginning to develop budgets to deal with pollution and these are being recognized in the report.

The group looked at 60 countries and found some had signed conventions and treaties to reduce pollution by lead, mercury, pesticides and other toxic substances. Some countries also have national plans to fight pollution.

The top 10 countries fighting pollution include two from Africa, three from Latin America, three from Asia, and two former Soviet states.

Honorable mentions went to India, China and Madagascar for struggling to curb pollution while developing modern economies and feeding their people.

"The more we look the bigger the problem of pollution is," said one researcher. "But most countries have limited resources."

Jack Caravanos of the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College in New York, said that the Global Fund raised $20 billion to fight malaria, AIDS and TB but only $100 million went to fight pollution which kills many, many more people each year.

The top 10 most improved countries listed were:

  • Kyrgyzstan -- Water filters reduced pollution from 24 abandoned uranium mines linked to high levels of cancer.
  • Former Soviet Union -- Hunted down thousands of tons of old but toxic pesticides.
  • Ghana -- Agbogbloshie area of Accra is using mechanical stripping to recover copper wiring from used electronics, rather than burning the plastic off.
  • Senegal -- Thiaroye Sur-Mer, a polluted lead battery recycling area, is switching to hydroponic gardening.
  • Vietnam -- Dong Mai villagers moved a lead battery recycling operation outside the village.
  • Philippines--In the Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando river aquaculture is being improved with zeolite and probiotic filtering systems.
  • Indonesia - Cinangka's lead laden soil was removed from a soccer field.
  • Peru -- "The country has developed new soil pollution laws and remediation timelines."
  • Uruguay -- "Montevideo has reclaimed neighborhoods by cleaning up electronic waste toxic hot spots."
  • Mexico -- "Mexico City turned a contaminated oil refinery into an urban park with a million visitors a year."

"Today pollution kills nearly 9 million people while more than 200 million people worldwide suffer from ailments, diseases, sicknesses," said the report. "This need not be so.

"Investments from the international community will serve the poorest well, saving lives, and solving problems permanently. We know how to solve the problem. It is simply a matter of providing communities and governments with the tools to get the job done now."