Blacksmith Institute Press Release

List Identifies Toxins and Activities Contributing to Death and Disability

NEW YORK – October 21, 2008 – Two international environmental groups - U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland - today issued a Top Ten list of the world’s most dangerous pollution problems. The report names pollution as a leading contributing factor to death and disability in the world and highlights the disproportionate effects on the health of children.

The Top Ten list includes commonly discussed pollution problems like urban air pollution as well as more overlooked threats like car battery recycling. The problems included in the report have a significant impact on human health worldwide and result in death, persistent illness, and neurological impairment for millions of people, particularly children.  According to the report, many of these deaths and related illnesses could be avoided with affordable and effective interventions.

“Our goal with the 2008 report is to increase awareness of the severe toll that pollution takes on human health and inspire the international community to act," said Richard Fuller, founder of Blacksmith Institute. "Remediation is both possible and cost-effective. Clean air, water and soil are human rights."

The issues cited in the Top Ten were chosen according to criteria developed by a team of international environment and health experts - including faculty members from Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Emory University and City University of New York - serving on Blacksmith Institute’s Technical Advisory Board.

The Top Ten

The list appears in Blacksmith Institute’s report titled, “The World’s Worst Pollution Problems: The Top Ten of The Toxic Twenty.” The report surveys a total of 23 issues across a broad range of pollutants and pollution sources. It is the result of an analysis of over 600 sites in Blacksmith’s database of polluted places as well as recommendations by relevant experts.

Blacksmith Institute’s World's Worst Pollution Problems list is unranked and includes:

•    Indoor air pollution: adverse air conditions in indoor spaces
•    Urban air quality: adverse outdoor air conditions in urban areas
•    Untreated sewage: untreated waste water
•    Groundwater contamination: pollution of underground water sources as a result of human activity
•    Contaminated surface water: pollution of rivers or shallow dug wells mainly used for drinking and cooking
•    Artisanal gold mining: small scale mining activities that use the most basic methods to extract and process minerals and metals
•    Industrial mining activities: larger scale mining activities with excessive mineral wastes
•    Metals smelting and other processing: extractive, industrial, and pollutant-emitting processes
•    Radioactive waste and uranium mining: pollution resulting from the improper management of uranium mine tailings and nuclear waste
•    Used lead acid battery recycling: smelting of batteries used in cars, trucks and back-up power supplies

The 2008 annual report defines and explains each pollution problem along with examples of communities around the globe where human health suffers as a result of each type. A downloadable copy of the report and more information is available at

About the List

The 2008 World's Worst Pollution Problems listing is based on three primary criteria: severity of pollutant, directness of pathway, and number of people affected globally.  The new approach provides context and scale to the types of pollution problems faced by individual communities highlighted in Blacksmith Institute's previous Top Ten Worst Polluted Places reports.  The list brings to light some of the least known and fastest growing pollution problems in the developing world.  The report cites a study by a Cornell Researcher that found that nearly 40% of deaths worldwide are directly attributable to pollution. According to the report, most of these deaths occur in developing countries.

Beyond death, the Top Ten report says, pollution compromises the quality of life for additional millions through consistent illness, neurological damage, and shortened life span. 

The report also notes that the international response to pollution has lagged behind responses to pandemics.

"Large steps have been taken by the global community to combat some of the worst threats to human health, such as Malaria and HIV/AIDs,” the report states. “While much attention has been paid to these pandemics, the relationship between human health and pollution seems to have been largely ignored. Indeed only a fraction of international aid is allocated to remediation, despite the significant threat posed by pollution, and the proven efficacy of interventions.”

Scope of the Problem

Blacksmith’s Top Ten List reviews the most hazardous and yet most commonly overlooked of the world’s pollution problems such as mercury amalgamation, a by-product of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) that affects up to 15 million miners, including 4.5 million women and 600,000 children. Estimates show that as much as 95% of all mercury used in ASM is released into the environment.  Hundreds of pounds of mercury are used every day for gold recovery, and it only requires less than 1 microgram per cubic meter to cause serious health effects.

Indoor air pollution (IAP) is another lesser-known issue with a significant impact on human health in the developing world.  An estimated 80% of households in China, India, and Sub Saharan Africa burn biomass fuels in improperly ventilated spaces for their cooking energy.  IAP contributes to nearly 3 million deaths annually and constitutes 4% of the global burden of disease. 

Used lead acid battery recycling (ULAB) is another commonly overlooked pollution problem included in the Top Ten report.  The increased price of recycled lead contributes directly to the growth of the informal car battery smelting industry. ULAB recycling is often done in densely populated urban areas and with little knowledge of the many health risks associated with unsafe lead recovery. 

Additional Lists

In addition to the Top Ten list, the report includes a broader list of over twenty environmental issues known as the Toxic Twenty.  These issues include a variety of problems that result from polluting processes such as mining, dumping and manufacturing petrochemicals that have a direct and dangerous impact on the environment and human health.

An additional feature of the 2008 annual report is the inclusion of four separate sub-lists which include:

The Top Four Least Addressed Pollution Problems
The Top Eight Pollutions Problems Most Affecting Children
The Top Seven Worst Pollutions Problems in Africa
The Top Four Problems Most Affecting Future Generations

“With this report we hope to bring attention of the international community to the enormous health risk posed by pollution every year in the developing world,” explain the report’s authors.

About Blacksmith Institute

Blacksmith Institute designs and implements solutions for pollution related problems in the developing world. Since 1999, Blacksmith has been addressing the critical need to clean up dangerous and largely unknown polluted sites where human health is most affected by pollution. Blacksmith has completed over 50 projects and is currently engaged in over 30 projects in 14 countries.

About Green Cross Switzerland

Green Cross Switzerland facilitates overcoming consequential damages caused by industrial and military disasters and the clean-up of contaminated sites from the period of the Cold War. Central issues are the improvement of the living quality of people affected by chemical, radioactive and other types of contamination, as well as the promotion of a sustainable development in the spirit of co-operation instead of confrontation. This includes the involvement of all stakeholder groups affected by a problem.