“I think if you add up the number of deaths from air pollution, contaminated sites, and sanitation – these are the three main types of pollution – the total number is 8.9 million…a year. That means one in every seven  people who died, died from exposure to something toxic. It makes [pollution] easily the single largest cause of death in the world.”

 

This is the fifth installment of our “Meet A 2015-er” series that profiles the women and men who are helping to shape the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change negotiations as they take form later this year.

Today, we get another perspective from civil society. Richard Fuller is the President of Pure Earth and is based in New York.

Tell us a little about your organization and the kind of work you do.

I’m the President of Pure Earth, it used to be called Blacksmith Institute and is well known by that name, and we’ve been working on pollution issues in lower and middle-income countries for the past 15 years. Pure Earth has also been appointed to the Secretariat of the new Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). It’s founding members are the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Commission, UNEP, UNIDO, UNDP, etc.

We provide resources and work to raise more interest in dealing with pollution as a problem on the international stage.

And, how does that play out in the ongoing SDG negotiations?

We were all worried about a year and half ago that there was nothing listed of any substance about pollution in the SDGs. It was sparse, at best.

GAHP launched an initiative to make sure it was addressed in the SDGs and thankfully we were successful. We managed to get a target written in — 3.9 — within the health goal that says we need to substantially reduce death and disability from all types of pollution. That means contaminated sites, air, water, and ground pollution from chemicals.

There are other aspects of the pollution problem in other SDGs as well.  In the sustainable consumption and production there’s target 12.4, which is related to chemicals and wastes and is wonderful…[but] consumption is a really difficult one to get much traction on in low income countries.  There is also a target related to polluted waters as well.

Dev Patel, artist Faith Ringgold, and Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute President Richard Fuller at the inaugural Pure Earth benefit gala held on April 26, 2014. NYC Credit: Pure Earth

Dev Patel, artist Faith Ringgold, and Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute President Richard Fuller at the inaugural Pure Earth benefit gala held on April 26, 2014. NYC
Credit: Pure Earth

Why single out pollution-related deaths in the SDGs?

The data related to…the number of people who died from different types of pollution from lower and middle-income countries, and these are WHO numbers, is scary!

I think if you add up the number of deaths from air pollution, contaminated sites, and sanitation – these are the three main types of pollution – the total number is 8.9 million…a year. That means one in every seven  people who died, died from exposure to something toxic. It makes [pollution] easily the single largest cause of death in the world.

Smoking is I think 4.5 million, malaria is around 1 million deaths, HIV/AIDS is about 1.5-2 million deaths so [pollution] dwarfs everything else. But, it’s wasn’t really well addressed in the SDGs until now.

That’s staggering data. Can put this in context? What kinds of pollution cause the most deaths?

If you look at the breakdown, 8.4 million occur in lower and middle-income countries. The 500,000 or so that are in high income countries, 90% of them are in the eastern parts of the European Union. Those new entry countries have a lot of issues with urban air trouble and contaminated, abandoned Soviet factories that haven’t been addressed. So, it’s really a poor country problem.

Of the 8.4 million, about 3.9 million are attributed to cookstoves [use indoors] and about 3.3 million can be attributed to urban air pollution. Contaminated sites are the least studied pollution health risk, but these go [beyond bodies of water]. Usually it includes areas of industry and mining, so a lot of soil contamination, lead poisoning, or mercury poisoning from artisanal gold mining.

Why not push for more pollution focus in the water and sanitation SDG? Certainly the Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson’s efforts have gotten sanitation much more attention in recent years.

The one we worry about because it’s the most important way to measure [pollution], is related to health.

Water and sanitation was well addressed in the MDGs and because of that there has been enormous inroads in investment in that area. The death rates have also plummeted. WHO’s numbers used to show figures of 2 million [plus] a year, but now the number in the 2012 assessment is around 700,000. That’s because there has been such terrific success in reducing exposures to open sewage and the like. That has a lot to do with China’s urban [sewage and sanitation] connection rate has gone up from almost none to nearly 70% now.

So it’s a success story, already. What isn’t a success story are the other, much larger aspects of pollution.

How does including the pollution language in the health SDG help though?

We focus on the health SDG because if you really want to make a difference we think most of the resources in development assistance and within countries’ development budgets are focused first and foremost on health and education. And, rightly so because these are the things that really bring a country out of poverty. So, having something that is firm within the Health area and an indicator that’s successful in that area really brings a much larger set of responses from countries and the donor community. The SDG focus also doesn’t get as much attention in these poor countries as a health and education one.

We know there are health links being talked about in the climate negotiations as well, but it seems like you are separating the two – pollution and climate change – in terms of health.

Climate change is more about the carbon released in the air, which is not inherently harmful to people. The pollution we’re talking about are the fine particles released along with that carbon that are actually harmful to people’s health, the waste spilled into water sources, the chemicals leaked into soil that makes its way into plants and animals. Certainly, that discussion is taking place in the [UNFCCC] negotiations but we’re focusing more on making it a personal, health issue.

There are several countries that responded to our push to get pollution included as part of the SDGs and they see it as one of their absolute priorities. In fact, in talking to them around the world they really think more about pollution issues than about climate change…though it may not be politically correct to say that!

They worry about horrible, horrible pollution everywhere more than what they see as more of a western problem of climate change.

What’s the final message about your work and the SDGs?

The thing that’s intolerable about this from a moral standpoint is that there are kids dying because of something that someone else did, of which they had no control. We shouldn’t allow that.

 

Discussion

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