When I heard about lead poisoning of kids in Flint, Michigan a few weeks ago, I immediately recalled the expedition I joined a year earlier to children suffering even higher levels of lead, in Kabwe, Zambia.
During the mission to Kabwe, a small team of us found astronomical levels of lead in soil, dust, playgrounds, streets piles of mine wastes and in the blood of small children.
That visit led to what non-profit agencies call "mitigation" - reducing the exposure to lead by covering tainted soil with plastic sheeting or burying it in landfills. European aid agencies paid the cost of this work
The real source of the lead however, remains a threat until a much more expensive ultimate solution: removal and burial of acres of brown stone-like tailings left in 30 foot hills as a legacy of decades of lead mining that shut down in recent years but remain toxic.
The World Health Organization recently noted that lead, chromium, mercury and other toxic chemicals in the developing countries - widely known as the Third World -- are the leading cause of death in children.
They kill more than AIDS, Malaria and TB together. Now the US Congress, State department and US Agency for International Development have begun to push for greater "mitigation" to remove these chemicals from the air, earth and water.
One of their staunchest allies in this effort is Richard Fuller, a charismatic Australian self-confessed do-gooder who founded the non-government organization Pure Earth (formerly called Blacksmith Institute).
Fuller became wealthy helping major buildings such as the new World Trade Center and the Empire State Building to recycle their paper and other wastes, reduce energy waste and earn ratings for their green footprint. Using cash from his private company Great Forest, Fuller went on to found his non-profit Good Earth. It is now working in more than 40 countries to clean up of toxic threats.
In a new book "The Brown Agenda," Fuller confesses he was bored at his first job after university -- designing electric grids in his native Australia. When he complained that work could be done in half the time, he got promoted. But still he could not change the culture of make-no-waves and kill time.
So he quit as golden boy of the electric company and then turned down a lucrative job with IBM and went skiing for six weeks in Colorado.
"What do I want to do with my life," he asked himself. The answer was to improve things on our planet. So he hooked up with people he met socially in New York who worked for the UN environment division. With his decidedly positive attitude and chutzpah, Fuller got the UN to informally sponsor him on a trip to Brazil to try and save the rain forest.
The next weeks were spent in a series of adventures such as: riding small river boats through storms in the Amazon basin; drinking hallucinogenic drugs to win the confidence of the local shaman; escaping from gunmen of the loggers and land grabbers; flying in barely airworthy single engine planes over the endless sea of forests and rivers.
Fuller, a total outsider and interloper from the organized and rational worlds of Australia and America, managed to pitch his ideas on saving the Amazon to the president of Brazil. The governor of the Amazon region signed off on a hastily typed plan to reverse the degradation of what some call the lungs of the planet earth - the Amazon forest.
Finally, he was warned to get the next flight out of the country because the bad guys wanted to kill him for stirring up opposition to forest clearing that transformed woodlands into grazing land for lucrative cattle ranches.
Back in New York, Fuller describes in his "Brown Agenda" how he created a virtual think tank of wise people he had met over the recent months. They were asked to advise how to make a difference, how to tackle an enormous issue that has been ignored by the mainstream do-gooders of the humanitarian tribe.
The Green Agenda of saving forests and pandas was already fully taken. But no one really tackles Brown issues such as pollution of land, water and air in the increasingly urban developing countries of the Third World.
Thus: The Brown Agenda.
For example, millions of cars ply the roads in Johannesburg, Delhi, Cairo, Jakarta, Sao Paolo and Beijing each day. Every five years, each car battery must be replaced. Often, that is done by backyard recyclers. Children smash the plastic casing and recover about 10 pounds of lead - worth $10. In the process they leave thousands of pounds of lead dust in the soil.
Fuller says in "The Brown Agenda," published by Santa Monica Press in 2015, how his brushes with the dark side of pollution did not end when he left Brazil. In New York, when he set up a firm to help major buildings recycle, he tangled with the Mafia over trash.
In one building, the Mob was extorting $25,000 a month to haul away trash. Fuller, despite threats, haggled the Mob down to $15,000. But then a mob trial thinned the ranks of bagmen and the cost of trash hauling fell to $500 a month. And Fuller had grown his business enough to allow him to work on his dream job - cleaning up the environment and health of poor people.
Fuller's book goes on to tells of his struggles in Ukraine, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico and Africa to identify problems, raise funds from international donors, and work with local governments, universities and NGOs to resolve these issues.
It's a roller coaster ride of danger and adventure leading to helping millions of children and others to improve their lives and health.
Note: Ben Barber, photographer and author of GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World, served until April, 2015, as a communications advisor for Pure Earth.