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5 Industries that Threaten the Globe and How We are Going to Save It

As our knowledge of how to clean up and prevent pollution increases and scientists slowly discover why we get certain illnesses and diseases, the world becomes more conscious of creating ways to make work environments safer; not only for the laborers, but for the entire human race. The goal is not necessarily to shut the processes down, but to reroute the toxic chemicals emitted in order to capture their vapors from releasing into the ozone. It's a new generation of wind, tidal and solar energy generators providing the world with its power. Continents are rapidly expanding their renewable energy resources, budgets and plans in order to eliminate dependency on these medieval practices that shortens the future of a healthy humanity.

We can look to Australia, which plans on practically eliminating coal-fired power stations by 2050 with carbon capture and storage (CSS), large-scale and household solar, wind energy, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity and bioenergy. What's holding them back, though, is not green energy or ideas but greenbacks in the likes of over $200 billion. With a vision of sustainability being a reality in even the dirtiest of industries, the clean tech start ups look to angle investors and globally educate and promote the solutions for a cleaner planet.

Blacksmith's Institute, in conjunction with Green Cross Switzerland, conducted a study on the health impacts of dangerous metal and chemical toxins, their industrial sources, health effects and exposure pathways. The 2011 World's Worst Toxic Pollution Problems Report quantifies the known economic and social impact of pollution in order to create a greater awareness with hopes of encouraging funding for the implementation of clean up and remediation by companies like Sevenson Environmental Services.

The report offers an example solution in the gold mining industry: Local craftsmen can build a sealed chamber, or still, to heat the amalgam (mercury alloy) with a cooling outlet tube attached to recapture the harmful mercury vapor. The report goes on to say that 99 percent of the toxicity can be obtained and properly disposed of, saving the health of the miners and entire global community from this particular pollutant.

What are the greatest threats and the industries that create them? As explained in The 2011 World's Worst Toxic Pollution Problems Report:

1. Artisanal Gold Mining — Mercury Pollution

  • Estimated population at risk is over 3.5 million people
  • Responsible for 1/3 of global annual mercury release
  • Major effects felt in Africa, and Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia are right behind
  • Exposure pathways are primarily inhalation and ingestion through vapors burned off when attempting to separate gold from mercury-gold amalgam
  • Hazardous to kidneys, respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous system
  • Can cause neurobehavioral disorders like mental retardation

GSI Mining Systems touts a new age of mining is on the horizon with eco-friendly gold mining equipment powered by solar and wind energy with storable backup technology. This off-the-grid system allows mobility in the processing of gold and other precious metals which reduces transportation pollutants and costs.

2. Industrial Parks — Lead Pollution

  • Estimated population at risk is over 2.9 million people
  • Industries that produce 2/3 of global lead use are lead-acid battery production and recycling
  • India and China have hundreds of industrial estates, with Southeast and South Asia scoring highest on most-impacted list
  • Lead is found in the air, soil, surface water and food because contaminants can seep into soil and groundwater
  • Most common exposure pathway is through drinking water contamination
  • There is a long list of health risks associated with lead poisoning that include: neurological damage, nerve disorders, physical growth impairment and anemia (to name a few)
  • Severe exposure can cause seizures, delirium, coma and death

Eco-industrial parks (EIPs) are combining their attempts to go green and reduce waste and pollution by sharing resources such as water, energy and infrastructure. The sustainable industrial communities are termed, "industrial ecosystems" by planners and researchers and seek to be more energy efficient in lighting, equipment and building design by energy cascading, steam connections and wind and solar energy.

3. Agriculture Production — Pesticide Pollution (local impact)

  • Estimated population at risk is over 2.2 million people
  • Largest sectors include grains, coffee, beans, potatoes and tea
  • 2.3 million tons used annually
  • Processes tend to take place in low economic areas where regulations are lax and health standards are not followed
  • Central and South America are most impacted
  • Exposure pathways include dermal contact, inhalation and ingestion
  • Health effects include extreme skin irritation, respiratory problems, loss of vision, nervous and immune system damage, different forms of cancer and death.

While pesticide manufacturing and storage is on the list at No. 10, it's important to recognize that illiteracy intensifies the container management problem. Often farmers don't know how to read the warning labels and are not aware of the dangers of pesticides. They will use their old containers as food storage. Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland emphasizes how important it is to have a container exchange program wherein a farmer is forced to recycle by bringing an old container to get a new one.

With renewable energy programs in place allowing farmers to harness alternative energy sources, reducing emissions from agriculture is on the rise. The Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) supports pest management by preventing infestations before they begin. They also promote the organic fertilizer, although that might be a more difficult practice to implement on large-scale projects.

4. Lead Smelting — Lead Pollution

  • Estimated population at risk is over 1.9 million people
  • Approximately six million tons used annually
  • Eastern Europe, Northeast Eurasia and Central Asia are primary locations impacted
  • Inhalation and ingestion of lead dust, particles or exhaust from the burning process are the most common exposure pathways
  • Particles and ash can blow into nearby towns and also contaminate livestock and crops (especially corn)
  • Health effects are noted above under the heading "Industrial Parks"

While lead is now being used for wind and solar power storage, it is an important part of our future. Process modifications are being met to fit new air-quality standards and alternative technologies include pyro processes to capture emissions.

5. Tannery Operations — Chromium Pollution

  • Estimated population at risk is over 1.8 million people
  • Leather tanning is generally seen in products such as purses, shoes, belts, straps and use in certain machinery
  • Chrome tanning protects leather from decay and helps durability
  • Creates wastewater and solid waste
  • South Asia is mostly impacted
  • Exposure pathways include inhalation of dust and ingestion or contact of contaminated water
  • The dangers of hexavalent chromium can increase chances of cancer and respiratory problems but can also cause anemia, ulcers and nose sores that lead to holes in the nasal septum

Due to the duration of ground exposure, to even begin to be hopeful of renewable energy being introduced into tannery operations, the soil and groundwater must be remedied and restored through best soil excavation practices with the use of hydraulic barriers and eventually backfilling and grading to restore disturbed areas. It is necessary to pave the way for one of the many renewable energy programs in development working to integrate sustainable practices for turning waste protein to usable fuel and possibly develop an artificial skin which is ambitiously being explored.

Through innovative ideas, vision, teamwork and a true commitment to making the world a cleaner one, the global community is joining together to help these and other industries become more sustainable.

Steve is a nutritionist who writes about food as tools for disease prevention, energy and fuel for the body. He is an adjunct professor for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest.

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