10 most polluted places in the world

From the river beds of Buenos Aires to the smelting complexes of Russia, a look at the planet's most toxic sites

Topics: Scientific American, Argentina, India, China, Pollution,

10 most polluted places in the world

Agbogbloshie, a neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, wasn’t a pretty place in 2006, but the rising flood of e-waste had yet to completely drown the dump in the middle of town in toxic pollution. Ghana now imports some 215,000 metric tons of European computers, cell phones, microwaves, refrigerators, televisions and other electronic goods, making Agbogbloshie the second-largest site for processing such e-waste in all of west Africa. It may yet take the title as largest because e-waste imports are expected to double by 2020. And Agbogbloshie has already earned the dubious distinction of landing on the Blacksmith Institute’s top 10 list of the world’s most polluted sites, after failing to make the cut for the original list in 2006.

“Everybody wants a laptop, wants the modern devices,” noted Jack Caravanos, Blacksmith’s director of research, at a November 4 press conference unveiling the list. “Stopping e-waste is proving very complicated and difficult,” particularly because the newest gadgets, such as tablet computers, are even more difficult to recycle than old desktop computers.

Environmental groups the Blacksmith Institute and partner Green Cross Switzerland have compiled the list after surveying more than 2,000 sites in 49 countries in less than a decade. The partners issued their first top 10 in 2006, and chose the 10 to represent the worst example of typical types of toxic pollution, such as artisanal gold mining or tanneries. Such toxic pollution threatens the health of more than 200 million people, and industrial pollutants, led by lead–acid battery recycling, affect the health of more people than malaria globally, according to Blacksmith’s calculations.

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View a slide show of the top 10 most polluted places in the world.

One major change in this year’s annual list is the inclusion of several river basins, such as the Citarum River in Indonesia or the Niger River Delta, rather than just major industrial sites. That’s because such river basins often are home to thousands of small industries that pour pollution into the waterway. “The number of people involved is very large,” said David Hanrahan, chief technical advisor for Blacksmith, but many of those people rely on the polluting industries for jobs. “They are not onlypoisoning themselves, their neighbors and the environment, but it’s also the only way they can make a living.”

That said, cleaning up such sites is not impossible. Several places that appeared on the original list have now dropped in the rankings, either because they have been or are being cleaned up. For example, soil that is heavily contaminated with lead at thelead–acid battery recycling center in Haina in the Dominican Republic has been dug up and buried in a specialized landfill. As a result, Haina is the only location to be completely delisted since 2006.

Highly polluted places in China and India have also fallen out of the top 10 this time around, thanks to government efforts to address the toxic pollution issues. The Chinese government shut down more than 2,000 highly polluting factories in Linfen and forced those that remained to install cleaner-burning coal-fired devices. The Indian government has implemented a program to assess and remediate all the contaminated sites in the country. “India made such strong efforts that we have not included them on the list,” said Bret Ericson, a senior project director at Blacksmith. “If inadequate efforts have been made, then [the sites] remain on the list.”

Improvements have been helped by local people in China or India convincing central governments to listen to their concerns about such toxic pollution. In countries such as Russia, where public pressure has proved more difficult to express, similar improvements are harder to find. At the same time new technologies—such as mercury-free devices for separating gold from ore or bone char that can bind lead in soil, rendering it chemically inert in the human body—may help turn some of these problems into a legacy of the past. Ultimately, such cleanups most often require the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, at minimum, as well as the basic infrastructure to properly dispose of toxic waste.

Although none of the top 10 sites are in the U.S., Japan or western Europe, that does not absolve the rich world from blame. A lot of the pollution in poorer countries has to do with the lifestyles of richer ones, noted Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland—for example, a tannery in Bangladesh that provides leather for shoes made in Italy that are sold in New York City or Zurich. “The pollution we see is not coming from the major global industrial companies, it’s all from small mom-and-pop shops, which prepare the raw materials that we then later use,” Robinson said. Or, in the case of Agbogbloshie, Ghanaians are polluted by the electronic devices Westerners have already used. Local people in such areas, Robinson added, “are very often polluting their environment not because they think it is fun but because it is a question of survival.”

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