Government representatives from six Asian countries joined Blacksmith Institute and Asian Development Bank staff for a midterm review of progress being made to improve health in their vulnerable communities threatened by legacy and artisanal pollution.

Ongoing since February 2009, The Global Inventory Project will cover 80 countries and currently is at work in 43 of them, co-financed by the European Commission and Green Cross Switzerland, and executed by Blacksmith Institute and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Using a rigorous approach modeled on the US Environmental Protection Agency's "superfund" program, as of mid-August, 1,715 sites had been identified. A total of nearly 60 million people may suffer health effects on an ongoing basis from exposures at these sites. While a diverse array of chemical exposures exist, most prominent are heavy metals with persistent organic pollutants and volatile organic compounds.

In tandem with health risks, economic consequences of exposure are being quantified. "Our goal," commented Blacksmith Founder and President Richard Fuller, "is to present data that can be used to estimate the economic benefits of intervention compared against the costs of remediation."

The ultimate objective of the project is to help communities heavily impacted by toxic pollution improve their health by taking action against the toxic waste endangering them. The project aims to generate both immediate interventions and also support the emergence of local institutions to resolve the larger problems. Specifics include a regional inventory of sites, partnerships with local stakeholders and agencies, and identification of priorities based on health risks.

Bangkok Workshop

Participating in the two-day meeting, held in Bangkok, Thailand, November 25-26, were representatives from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Recognizing the importance of the work underway and offering to share operational and site information--closer coordination between contaminated site inventories and government activities was a main, recurring theme.

Blacksmith Program Manager Bret Ericson assured attendees their concerns would be addressed: "We will take a systematic approach to presenting data to the governments during preparatio n of country strategy papers. Governments will be involved in the drafting of these documents, so the data collected is relevant and transparent."

This will require different approaches, he continued, in some cases like Nepal with the presentation of full inventories; or helping governments more effectively organize and interpret existing data to grasp full human health implications such as with Thailand. Also Blacksmith hopes to provide more methodology and hands-on site assessment training to ministry staff in government agencies in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam as well as expand its training in the Philippines, he added.

Previously Blacksmith has had varying degrees of involvement with governments, depending upon their interest in collaboration; and where there has been little formal interaction, relying on NGOs and universities for assistance. Both approaches have yielded results, but the midterm workshop highlighted the need for data to be collected and shared with governments, especially where national resources are limited.

"Toxic pollution is one priority among many...governments have many other issues to do we make it a priority?" Blacksmith's London-based Director of Global Programs David Hanrahan asked the gathering. "The government should be involved from the very beginning. It's important to build government capacity," he emphasized. "Information is to support the government, to assist governments to help their people especially to determine priorities...develop country papers," he emphasized.

Blacksmith will continue with the Global Inventory Project for the next five to 12 months, Hanrahan told the gathering, "Then the government will take over the data. That's training for local capacity building," he summed up. Blacksmith will be available to begin project work with governments, sharing its resources--technical expertise, funding opportunities, experience from other places available for replication.

Other Blacksmith colleagues at the meeting were: Budi Susilorini and Hendra Aquan, Indonesia; Promila Sharma, India; Jenny Sunga-Amparo, Philippines; Raj Dip Lama, Nepal; and Duong Thi To, Vietnam. Sundre C. Aquino and Babken Babajanian represented the Asian Development Bank.

Asian Summary

In South Asia so far 400 contaminated sites have been assessed with an estimated 14 million people at risk; in Southeast Asia, 125 sites with 5.5 million at risk. The majority of sites were found to be small industrial facilities or artisanal activities, most commonly industrial mining, leather tanning, chemical, dye and pesticide manufacturing, primarily gold artisanal mining, power generation, lead-acid battery recycling and agriculture. Artisanal mining is a particular problem in Indonesia and the Philippines, while tanning and dye production are prevalent in South Asia.

Key pollutants are fairly consistent among these Asian countries: chromium, often found near tanning and dye production; lead; mercury used by artisanal gold miners and problematic in Indonesia and the Philippines; arsenic, naturally occurring in groundwater in Bangladesh, Nepal and parts of India; cadmium; and pesticides.