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Hidden Consequences: The unseen price of water pollution
Environment Zambia, 25th May 2011

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.

Today 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. Dump sites with toxic waste from chemical industries are 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 paid by the taxpayers. The pollution has multiple sources and comes from industries upstream.

All these cases show the price that the Global North is paying for such a lax approach to hazardous chemicals. And the real costs in heath and environment impacts have not even been taken into account.

Asia and other countries in the Global South are now heading for similar problems. Rampant industrialisation without care for 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. Serving as sources of drinking water to millions and yet treated as sewers for toxic waste from the industries. With this trend continuing the price for people and planet can be huge. Companies with suffer not only from the future clean up costs, but also from their damaged reputation as consumers are becoming more cautious about how their products were made.

 Still, there is a chance to change the course and learn from past mistakes. The price that the Global North is paying now does not have to be paid in full in the Global South. But urgent action is needed. 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 this problem have the corporate and social responsibility to act now - rather than wait for governments.

We need big companies to seize the opportunity to be leading examples of toxic free production so that we will be left with rivers where we can safely swim and catch fish.

Watch this space!

-- Martin

Martin Hojsik has been a Greenpeace campaigner on toxic pollution for over a decade. He is now leading our global work on water pollution. You should follow him on Twitter.

Top Image: Wastewater in Guangdong Province, China. A boy walks barefoot in the wastewater discharge of a fabric dyeing factory. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace

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