Pollution Deaths Soar but Aid Is Cut

A widening plague of industrial pollution in the developing countries has become the largest cause of global deaths each year -- killing 10 million people -- but world heath officials are downplaying pollution as a focus of concern.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 25 released a report noting that seven million people die of indoor and outdoor air pollution alone every year, while three million more die from lack of sanitation as well as exposure to lead, mercury, chromium and other industrial wastes.

Yet the WHO dropped pollution to a minor problem in a list of health priorities -- targets currently being drafted for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). The SDGs will guide funding by the United States and other donors aimed at ending poverty in the next decades.

In the past 15 years U.S. funding poured into fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but all together they kill only one third of the victims of pollution, said Richard Fuller, head of the Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit group that identifies and cleans up toxic waste sites in more than 40 developing countries.

The dropping of much of the pollution agenda from the new development goals to be adopted by the United Nations next year will deeply undercut efforts to clean up toxic threats in poor countries. Millions of lives are at risk due to this lack of spotlight on pollution, said Fuller.

In part, it is the success of the wealthy Western nations such as the United States in cleaning up soil, air and water at home that has made this a distant and faint crisis, unlike AIDS, TB and malaria which can undermine stability of weak Third World governments and can also spread to Europe and America.

I can remember growing up in Manhattan in the 50s when the air was thick with pollution. I faced that similar pollution when I lived in Bangkok in the 1980s. But in 1988 I returned to New York and was shocked to find that at Times Square the air was clean and sweet, the sky blue and pollution had been largely solved by unleaded gasoline, automotive catalytic converters and other technologies.

Today, the air in Beijing and Delhi and Jakarta is so awful that people are moving away to save their children from serious lung damage.

In fact, pollution -- as the WHO has reported -- is the number one cause of death in the world. Most of these deaths occur in poor countries.

The U.S. Congress has weighed in on the need to combat these new sources of pollution - mercury from small scale gold mining, lead from recycling auto batteries, chromium from tanneries, and the like.

The 2014 foreign aid budget bill mandates spending "not less than $5,000,000 from funds appropriated under Title III of this Act, to be administered by USAID, for small grants to support initiatives in poor countries where the air, soil and/or water is polluted by toxic chemicals to eliminate the threats to health and the environment caused by such pollution."

The environmental movement in the 1960s in the United States was born out of the need to clean up water, air and soil from the spillover from the industrial growth in the early 20th century.

It was especially important and became a cause because the most affected were the poor, single mothers and small children who often lived in inner cities and other low income areas adjacent to factories and highways spewing lead-tainted exhaust.

Now the increasing burden of overseas pollution affects those same populations who are unable to move to green suburbs or escape from the toxic contacts in the jobs that sustain them economically.

Reports by WHO and other agencies such as the World Bank for 2012 state that deaths from outdoor air pollution reached 3.7 million; indoor air such as from indoor cooking and heating killed 4.3 million; soil and water contamination killed 1 million; poor or non-existent sanitation killed 1.9 million. This total from all pollution sources was 10.9 million dead in 2012. By comparison, there were 1.5 million deaths from HIV; 600,000 from malaria; and 900,000 from tuberculosis.

So pollution kills three times more people than HIV, malaria and TB combined.

Yet WHO -- for some as yet unexplained reason, is ignoring its own new statistics that has elevated pollution to be the leading case of death in the world. To those of us who frequent or live in developing countries, it is no surprise that pollution is skyrocketing. I once asked former USAID administrator J. Brian Atwood what it was like to return to the West African capital he had served in as a young man in the Peace Corps. He told me that over 30 years it had grown from a sweet town of 200,000 to a giant, polluted city with millions living in tin shanties without adequate clean water, sewerage and room to live and grow and play.

Yet the current draft of the new Sustainability Development Goals has relegated pollution to a sub-sub line, soon to be dropped, said Fuller.

He noted that at the world's top gathering of environmental experts -- the Global Environment Facility assembly -- hundreds attended talks on hot button topics such as climate change and biodiversity. But a talk on pollution, the only such panel, drew a couple of dozen folks.

Recent warnings for pregnant women to not eat fish that could contain mercury is a sign that pollution around the world will eventually reach is in fortress America. And millions of young people are growing up with brain damage due to widespread lead pollution as millions of cars are shipped to developing countries and there is a lack of safe recycling.

The WHO should reconsider its downgrading of pollution as a global health threat.

Ben Barber is a communications consultant to the Blacksmith Institute.