Tackle pollution to stop biggest killer of poor - author

by Joseph D'Urso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 3 September 2015 12:59 GMT

A boy takes a bath at a water tap near a polluted water channel in Kolkata, India, June 5, 2015. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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Policy makers could save millions of lives worldwide with simple, cheap measures to tackle dirty air and water

By Joseph D'Urso

LONDON, Sept 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Policy makers could save millions of lives worldwide with simple, cheap measures to tackle the "low hanging fruit" of dirty air and water, said the author of a new book on pollution.

Pollution is the biggest killer in poorer countries, with more people dying because of it than from either wars, malnutrition, smoking, malaria or even HIV, said Richard Fuller, citing data from the World Health Organisation.

"We've already solved most of the pollution problems in the West. There aren't people dying in droves in the U.S. or in England - they're all dying overseas, in low- and middle-income countries," the author of "The Brown Agenda" told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The name of the book, published last month, refers to Fuller's work to found anti-pollution charity Pure Earth, clean up "brown sites" around the world, and preserve large tracts of Amazon rainforest, preventing them from turning "brown".

Pollution is defined as contaminated water, soil and air that harms or poisons directly because of human activity.

Besides well-understood respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis, another major killer linked to pollution is tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres across that can get into the bloodstream like tobacco, causing cancers and heart disease, said Fuller, an Australian now based in New York.

The fine grey soot that comes out of diesel engines is particularly dangerous.

Air pollution also kills indoors, as nearly 3 billion people across the world cook on open fires and stoves using dirty fuels and without adequate ventilation.

'ZOMBIE TOWN'

Fuller travelled around the world to research his book, visiting some of the most polluted places on the planet. Kabwe in Zambia, a lead mining town, was "very depressing", he said.

"They never had any pollution controls, so they pumped out all this lead-contaminated waste all over the town, and when you go there and test the kids' blood levels for lead, they are just the highest I've ever seen," he said in an interview.

Lead damages the neurological system, and when talking to affected people, their attention drifts off easily, he added.

"It's really like a bit of a zombie town ... and all because they're living with this huge amount of lead around them," he said.

Fuller is eager to distinguish between pollution - which kills here and now - and climate change. Global warming has a slower impact, affecting ecosystems and sea levels, and could have devastating effects in the coming decades, he said.

A combination of regulatory controls, public responsibility, and "people who'll yell and scream" when things are dumped mean the levels of pollution in Kabwe or Rudnaya Pristan, a Russian mining town, are not seen in the West, said Fuller.

Changes here in recent years show tackling pollution is not insurmountable, he noted. "If we spend a bit of time and energy in the next couple of decades, we could get rid of it," he said.

He suggested subsidising propane gas as a less polluting energy source for cooking, monitoring fuel sales to discourage dirty diesel, and cleaning up contaminated soil and water.

"It's not going to be rocket science - it's just steady, solid work replicating what we've already done," he said.

(Reporting By Joseph D'Urso; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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