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The World's Most Polluted Places

By Mat Edelson

Ranipet, India may not have the name recognition of Love Canal, and that's a shame... because environmentally it's a far, far more dangerous place to live. Ranipet—home to a factory that manufactures tanning chemicals and dumps tons of waste into unsecured areas—is among the Blacksmith Institute's 10 'World's Worst Polluted Places,' a list compiled with the help of Patrick Breysse, PhD '85, MHS '80, director of the Industrial Hygiene Program at the Bloomberg School.

According to Breysse, Blacksmith—a creation of noted 'green' consultant Dr. Richard Fuller—finds and reviews extremely polluted industrial sites internationally (over 150 so far) and creates practical, affordable remediation plans for local leaders. "If we can identify polluted places around the world, the first 80 percent of the cleanup can usually be done pretty cheaply," says Breysse, noting that inexpensive removal of surface contaminated soil often greatly lessens environmental exposure, which is vitally important in poor countries where most of Blacksmith's targets operate. "Mostly we focus on sites that have very specific factories, plants, mines that create a lot of pollution," he says.

Breysse, whose studies include how the EPA's Superfund toxic clean ups affect the health of Baltimore women and children, says Blacksmith implements the Superfund concept internationally by soliciting financial commitments. 

At another top 10 site—the Kabwe (Zambia) Lead Mines—the World Bank agreed to substantially fund removal of huge quantities of toxic lead- laden soil. Blacksmith has also provided technical support and funding to support the phasing out of leaded gas in use in Mozambique and Tanzania, while a trial program in India injects chemicals into tainted groundwater to neutralize contaminants. 

Media attention alone often prompts action. According to Blacksmith, more than 300 press outlets publicized its first top 10 list in 2006, and it was the most e-mailed story on the BBC (UK) website. "Other than a few high profile places like Chernobyl (number one on Blacksmith's list), most of these places aren't well known around the world," says Breysse. "They're huge problems locally, but nobody shines the light on these kinds of things like Blacksmith's doing. And, very often, just by shining the light on it, the local industry, the local government agencies start doing stuff. Sometimes you don't even have to spend any money."

Which is good, because finances are always tight. On their monthly conference calls, Breysse and Blacksmith's other technical advisors dovetail their personal research schedules with sites of concern to conserve resources. "Somebody will say, 'I'm going to be in China next month at such-and-such a city. Is there a site close by that I can look at while I'm there to help out?'"

"It's really taken off," says Breysse of Blacksmith's work, which is the subject of an upcoming National Geographic story. "It's been a huge, wonderful experience for me, when you think of the good that's being done because of this."

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