Typing the above question into a search engine will quickly throw-up a number of potential candidates:
- The city of Linfen, in the heart of China’s coal belt
- Kabwe in Zambia, the name of which literally translates as “ore” or “smelting”
- The industrial city of Vapi in the Gujarat, India
- The town of La Oroya, in the lead mining area of Peru
- The city of Sukinda, also in India, home to one of the world’s largest chromite mines
The truth is of course that it’s not that straightforward, or particularly meaningful to rank polluted places in this way. An area might be heavily contaminated, but with perhaps only a limited number of people being exposed; or there might be ongoing pollution of important rivers or ecosystems, but little direct risk to human health. It’s a bit like comparing apples and pears.
Regardless of the exact order of the ranking, these lists are very useful in highlighting pollution problems around the world, and two things in particular stand out:
Firstly, that millions of people around the world are having their health significantly affected by toxic pollution.
And secondly, the world’s most polluted places are all in the developing world.
The pollution stems from a range of local manufacturing, mining, smelting, processing and associated transport and energy production, in large part associated with the production of consumer goods, food, clothing and other items – much of it destined for export to the rich world.
Not only has the West exported most of our manufacturing jobs to the developing economies – we’ve also largely exported our pollution too !
Industries move because the costs are lower – partly because labour is cheaper (people are paid less and receive fewer benefits, such as health care and pensions), and partly because there are less stringent environmental regulations and those that do exist tend to be less well enforced.
When companies talk about improved efficiency, lower overheads, improved shareholder value etc – they’re unfortunately not always talking about ‘the good stuff’ we want them to do. Often these terms are euphemisms for leaving many of the real costs of production to be paid for by someone else, other than the company or the consumer, such as exploited workers, or polluted environments. Ultimately it’s down to the desire for higher profits, and cheaper ‘stuff’.
This of course is not new.
A list of the world’s most polluted places produced around 1900 would have looked very different, comprising several of the large industrial cities of Europe. There is of course, still plenty of pollution in the West – but much of it is associated with old legacy industries, now long gone, but with their various toxic chemical footprints remaining - from UK’s Victorian gasworks and coal mines, to the sediments of the Great Lakes polluted by effluent from car manufacturing and other industries across the American Mid-West.
Over time we’ve tackled many (not all) our pollution problems, with reformers like Edwin Chadwick, Joeseph Bazalgette, Alice Hamilton and Rachel Carson progressively bringing about changes to ensure the costs of controlling pollution were borne by whoever was responsible for producing it – the so called ‘polluter pays principle‘.
But this only applies in our own economies, and in our globalised, inter-connected world, the full costs of cheap goods is often left to be borne by others, invariably the poorest and most vulnerable. Unfortunately we consumers are all too often complicit in this process – with pollution being caused on our behalf on the other side of the planet, to keep down the cost of our food, clothes, mobile phones or children’s toys.
Ultimately the answer can only lie in paying the true price for things, so that pollution can be controlled, waste dealt with properly, resources used sustainably and workers treated fairly.
What we choose to spend our money on matters.
As a start we might want to check out the ethical credentials of the products we buy and the companies producing them (Ethical Consumer) – alternatively we could think about buying and consuming a little less . . . just a thought.
Photo from Gambier20, via Flickr