Aug 18, 2015 by

Pollution gone awry is a “brown” issue and it affects even the rich countries, directly and indirectly
Richard Fuller  SALON.COM

The poisoned poor: In poor countries man-made toxic pollutants spread like cancer. Here’s why you should care

Excerpted from “The Brown Agenda: My Mission to Clean Up the World’s Most Life-Threatening Pollution”

It started out simply enough: peering into an open-cut mine and watching my feet to make sure I didn’t slip on the ice. The pit was several hundred feet deep and about half a mile across. We were at the edge of an old cinnabar mine near the town of Horlivka, in the eastern part of Ukraine.

The Russians had mined the cinnabar for mercury but the pit had lain abandoned for some time. I was there with a dozen other environmentalists in a training workshop to identify polluted sites. This place certainly qualified. High levels of mercury had been found in the soil of a nearby village; we were there to assess the risk. My biggest concern at the moment, however, was keeping myself from slipping on the icy edge of the mine and falling in. One glance was enough to tell me it was a long way down, and dark.

Vladimir was our local coordinator. He tugged at my elbow.

“Uh-oh,” he said in a low voice.

I followed his gaze and saw two big black SUVs pull off the road about fifty yards away. A window in the lead vehicle rolled down, and someone within barked a few words in Russian. Vladimir scurried over, listened for a moment, and jogged back. The look on his face was grim.

“They want you to go with them,” he said.

“Who?” I asked. “What do you mean? Who are they?”

“I’m not sure, but they are officials. We have to do what they say.” Things unsaid lingered in the air as we both walked over, and Vladimir introduced me. “This is Richard Fuller, the leader of our investigation team.” He said this in Russian, then repeated it for me in English.

“Get in,” someone said. In English. A back door to the SUV opened and I caught a glimpse of two heavyset, grim-faced men inside.

“You too, Valodya,” I said, hoping my use of Vladimir’s colloquial name would break the tension. It did not. Vladimir turned back to our training group, which was struggling toward us en masse, their faces curious and strained. He gave them some instructions, then opened the front door and got in the front seat. We pulled away with the second SUV following close behind. I craned my neck and felt some relief when I noticed the white van our team had rented filling rapidly. A moment later, it was following us.

At least there are witnesses, I thought.

I was distracted by the sound of Vladimir having a detailed and heated discussion with a man I assumed was the boss, the older gentleman sitting next to me. I did not dare interrupt. If my group was doing something illegal—or even if these men had simply decided we were doing something illegal—my safety now depended on Vladimir’s gift for talking his way out of difficult places. This was not the first time we’d needed that skill, but it seemed by far the most serious. From everything I could gather, these guys who had picked me up were not drunk soldiers or low-level officials looking for a bribe. They were clearly big-time operators of some sort. In the former Soviet Union, that can be deadly.

The conversation went on for some time, until Vladimir glanced at me. He must have read the look on my face.

“Rich, is okay,” he said. “Everything is fine. This is the mayor of the town—Horlivka, over the rise. He has not come because we are in trouble.”

“Great,” I sighed. “Then what’s this about?”

“He says they need our help.”

In 2009, the city of Horlivka, Ukraine, was literally a bomb waiting to go off. The ruins of a secret former Soviet weapons factory sat on a 400-acre campus in the middle of town. Within its crumbling concrete halls, stacks of corroding metal barrels leaked deadly mononitrochlorobenzene, or MNCB. The Soviets left this cache behind when their empire collapsed in 1991. It was very bad news for the people of Ukraine. MNCB is so toxic that just half a teaspoon ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin can kill a human being. The barrels at Horlivka held over 8,000 tons of the stuff, enough of the toxin to wipe out every living thing in a radius of many miles. You could often smell the stuff in the air of the town, a faint, sweet almond odor.

Along with the MNCB, a flammable toxic compound called trinitrotoluene—more commonly known as TNT—was left lying around in pipes and underground sarcophagi. TNT was one of the factory’s end products. When the Soviets abandoned the factory, they left nearly ten tons of it lying around, much of it in a form that was volatile, ready to explode. Other buildings nearby contained large amounts of various highly corrosive acids.

The mayor and his team drove us up to the entrance of this facility and pointed to the buildings. Night was falling. They made no move to get out of the car, just kept talking to Vladimir in Russian. Curious, I opened my door and got out. The other members of my team had pulled up behind me in our white van. They, too, got out and came over to join me. Once they’d established that no one was being arrested, a few of them drifted over to talk with the mayor and his people. But no one made a move toward the plant. We all just stood there, watching it from a safe distance.

At the time, about 260,000 people lived in Horlivka. Chemicals from the plant had leaked into the air they breathed and the water they drank. Local doctors had pegged the average life expectancy in Horlivka at under fifty years old. But there was something even more worrisome. Up until very recently, the people of Horlivka lived under the constant threat of the place exploding.

It wouldn’t take much—just a stray bolt of lightning, a cigarette butt tossed aside, or a spark borne aloft on a hot dry wind. The slightest incendiary provocation could have set off an explosive chain reaction. The TNT would go up in a flash, tossing toxins throughout the town. According to some estimates, a disaster at Horlivka could have easily dwarfed those experienced at Chernobyl and Bhopal combined. Experts have called Horlivka one of the worst instances of legacy contamination in human history, a deadly threat to both the environment and human health. Yet practically no one has heard of it.

This was the most dangerously polluted place I had ever seen, worse than the mercury mine by a mile. Eventually, my team and I dispersed after promising we would do our best to help the mayor and his people with their toxic legacy.

A month later, we sent in a team that included the top environmental scientist from the U.S. Army (now retired). Ira May took a few steps into the first building at the abandoned weapons plant. He read the names marked on some leaking bags of chemicals just inside the door and his face went white.

“Everyone out. Now.” His voice was low. Insistent.

Everyone obeyed him promptly.

Back outside, he told everyone present: “No one goes in there without full protective gear. That’s nasty stuff in there. Does everyone understand me? Good. Then let’s suit up.”

That’s how our project to deal with Horlivka and its toxic legacy began. Before I tell the whole story, it’s important that you understand how pollution of this sort—what I and a lot of other people have taken to calling “the brown agenda”—isn’t confined to one problem in one city of one country. It’s a global issue, it’s spreading fast, and we have to do something about it right now.

For instance, a few thousand miles away, in Delhi, India, the air is getting worse. Particulates from low-grade diesel exhaust combine with coal exhaust from a couple of nearby power plants to create a haze that descends over everything, rendering permanent twilight on bright, clear days. The World Health Organization has set the level for safe, breathable air at twenty micrograms per cubic meter. During one of my visits in June and July of 2014, the air in parts of Delhi registered particulates at 600 micrograms per cubic meter on at least five separate occasions. A recent analysis in the New York Times found the air in Delhi to be twice as polluted as that in Beijing, the poster child of bad air.

Conditions like these have taken a toll on the citizenry, especially in the poorer districts. Living in Delhi means living with a constant cough and shortness of breath. Incidents of chest infection, pneumonia, and asthma are rampant. Expats I know have cut short their three-year assignments after watching their children suffer, unable to exercise or play outside. Most Indian children will never get to leave, of course. Delhi is their home and their sentence in one.

Travel farther east, to rural parts of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Small-scale gold miners rip apart the Kahayan River with sluicing hoses, searching for gold-rich rocks. In the forests all around them, birds and an occasional orangutan watch in dismay as this paradise slowly becomes lost. The miners process the ore by hand, using a primitive technique that involves liberal quantities of toxic liquid mercury. They don’t take care to clean up after themselves, so each year, tons of mercury enter the local environment. The element poisons the miners and their children, many of whom become stricken by tremors. (In Victorian England, this was known as Mad Hatter’s Disease, since haberdashers used mercury to stiffen the felt of the hats they were shaping.)

But the damage doesn’t stop there. Apart from being a toxic heavy metal, mercury is an element, and therefore persistent— it does not break down into harmless, smaller particles. Once it infiltrates the river and local marine life, it sweeps out into the ocean, where it joins the global food supply. Big game fish like tuna can become especially polluted by it. These days, everyone in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and other major cities has heard the warnings. Caution: Mercury Levels Rising in Fish! Avoid Tuna, Especially When Pregnant! What most people don’t know is where that mercury comes from. A great deal of it leaks from coal-fired power plants around the globe. But the largest amount originates from impoverished miners who make their living panning for gold in the ancient jungles of Borneo and other places.

Not far away, in metro Jakarta, a half-dozen urchins play soccer in a local field using a ball they’ve fashioned from wadded cloth and duct tape. Filthy hand-me-down clothes hang off their spindly frames. The soil beneath their brown bare feet glints light grey in the sunlight of the tropical afternoon; it smells faintly metallic. The children have no idea this field once played host to an unregulated car-battery recycler. They don’t know the recyclers buried their waste and fled when officials threatened to shut them down. Nor can they comprehend that the land they are playing on is poisoned by lead dioxide, a chemical so toxic it causes brain damage and nerve deterioration before it kills.

Readings taken at the soccer field in Jakarta with a handheld laser spectrometer show lead levels measuring 49,239 parts per million of lead, a quantity that massively exceeds the standard of 400 set by the World Health Organization. Arsenic readings are also off the charts at 1,744 parts per million; the common approved standard is less than ten. Meanwhile, the kids dream that football will get them out this slum. They don’t know how dangerous it is. They’re focused on scoring a goal for their team.

These contaminated sites are everywhere. Unsafe recycling in backyards accounts for one-half of all cases of car battery recycling in the developing world. This industry affords a basic standard of living for a few while poisoning the communities around them irreparably. Lead is responsible for killing five of Seynabou Mbengue’s ten children. Like many families in Ngagne Diaw, Senegal, Seynabou used to make her meager living recycling old car batteries. She would break the battery casings by hand and dump the acid out on the ground before extracting the valuable lead components within and melting them over an open fire. She had no idea how dangerous this was until her last five babies suffered convulsions and died, all before the age of two.

“That’s when I made the connection,” she said. “[While] pregnant or breastfeeding my babies, I never stopped recycling batteries. I am still full of lead.”

Seynabou’s story illustrates how much more vulnerable babies and children are to pollutants. They die more often and faster than the adults around them, whose larger bodies can withstand the toxic chemical load much longer. Along with Seynabou’s five toddlers, twenty-seven more children are known to have died from lead poisoning in Ngagne Diaw. The true toll is likely much higher.

In a modern world so often focused on “going green,” these are just a few troubling examples of what we call “brown” issues: pollution gone awry. In 2012, pollution like the types I’ve just described killed 8.9 million people worldwide. To put this into perspective, WHO statistics showed that fifty-five million people died in 2012 overall—that’s every person who passed away on the planet, whether it was from car accidents, suicides, old age, cancer, hospital errors, being struck by lightning, infectious diseases, parachute failures, war, or what have you. In other words, in 2012, brown problems—pollution—killed about one in seven people.

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