Hidden Consequences: The unseen price of water pollution

Posted by Gemma Freeman — 26 May 2011 at 2:07pm - Comments
A boy walks barefoot in the wastewater discharge of a fabric dyeing factory in G
All rights reserved. Credit: © Lu Guang / Greenpeace
A boy walks barefoot in the wastewater discharge of a fabric dyeing factory in Guangdong Province, China.

Martin Hojsik, leader of the Toxics Water Pollution Project at Greenpeace International, writes on the concealed costs of pollution - on people, planet and profits.   

Toxic pollution is often unseen. But many of the hazardous chemicals that are discharged into our rivers can stay there for years to come and accumulate inside living organisms. Some can cause cancer while others disrupt hormone systems. Yet they are still used and released polluting the rivers and lakes around us.

Yesterday my team released the Hidden Consequences report to highlight this problem. You should check it out by flicking through this new digital magazine, but I also I want to give you the big picture and explain why all of this is so important.

Strazske is a small town in the east of Slovakia. Not a famous spot on the tourist maps, yet well known among experts in toxic pollution. While the production of now globally banned toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) stopped in a local chemical factory more than 25 years ago, the region and its rivers and lakes are still one of the most polluted in the world because of these hazardous chemicals. The clean-up will be costly and the factory is now bankrupt.

In the US General Electric caused contamination of the Hudson River with the same chemical and now faces fines of up to hundreds of millions of dollars in clean up costs.

Switzerland has a dirty secret too. Toxic waste from the dump sites of chemical industries is slowly leaking into the groundwater and Swiss industries are facing a very costly clean-up - but the groundwater is already contaminated.

In the Dutch Rhine Delta the clean-up is being paid for by the taxpayers; the pollution has multiple sources from industries upstream.

All these cases show the economic price that the Global North is paying for such a lax approach to hazardous chemicals. But, the real costs in health and environmental impacts have not been taken into account.

Asia and other countries in the Global South are now heading for similar problems. Rampant industrialisation without care for the environment is starting to show its price. Rivers like the Yangtze in Chinathe Marilao in the Philippines, the Chao Phraya in Thailand or the Neva in Russia are examples of rivers under threat. These rivers may be sources of drinking water to millions, yet are treated as sewers for toxic waste from the industries. As this trend continues the price for people and planet can be huge: companies will suffer not only from future clean up costs, but also from damaged reputations, as consumers become more cautious about how their products were made.

There is a chance to change the course and learn from past mistakes however. The price that the Global North is paying now does not have to be paid by the Global South - but only if urgent action is taken. Governments need to start working towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals - identifying the worst chemicals and simply getting rid of them. But companies linked with these problems must have the corporate and social responsibility to act now - rather than wait for governments.

We need big companies to seize the opportunity now to become leading examples of toxic free production - so that we all can have rivers to swim in safely and still catch fish.

Watch this space!

(You can follow Martin on twitter: @mhojsik)

Read more about Greenpeace's work on water pollution and toxics:

About Gemma Freeman

Web Producer at Greenpeace UK, writer, photographer, blogger, surfer, snowboarder, cyclist, vegetarian and geek.

Follow Greenpeace UK