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EP61 Pure Earth - Addressing Toxic Pollution on a Global Scale
Alexandra Arriaga: Hello, and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. My name is Alexandra Arriaga. And today we are going to talk to our own faculty member, Jack Caravanos, who is the Director of Research at Pure Earth, as well as Angela Bernhardt, who is the Director of Communications, also at Pure Earth. Pure Earth is an organization whose mission is to reduce disease-causing pollution to save lives and protect the planet. Did you know that 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries? Yet the problem is often overlooked in international development and global health agendas. Also, did you know that globally 500,000 people die prematurely from cardiovascular disease related to lead exposure? If you'd like to learn more about Pure Earth, how to reduce pollution, save lives, and protect the planet, please keep listening. Hi, Jack. Hi, Angela. Thank you so much for coming. How are you doing today?
Angela Bernhardt: Very good.
Jack Caravanos: Same here. Very nice.
Angela Bernhardt: Nice to be here.
Alexandra Arriaga: To start off, can you each introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit more about your background?
Angela Bernhardt: I'm Angela Bernhardt. I'm Director of Communications at Pure Earth. I've been with the organization six going on seven years. I've spent a good part of my career in environmental science education and communications with a side stint as a public interest lobbyist in DC with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Jack Caravanos: Hello, everybody. My name is Jack Caravanos. I'm full-time clinical professor here at the College of Global Public Health, NYU. And I've been doing environmental and occupational health for most of my life, but about 12 years ago, I met up with Richard Fuller of Pure Earth, formerly Blacksmith. And I did a little work for him, one thing led to another, and I'm really proud to say I'm part of the team at Pure Earth. And I essentially work in the area of getting some of the research published of all the projects that they do, so I'm technically the Director of Research at Pure Earth.
Alexandra Arriaga: Great. And could you please tell us a little bit more about Pure Earth and its mission?
Angela Bernhardt: We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, which we're pretty thrilled about. We're a nonprofit environmental remediation organization with a focus on health. So we identify and work on cleaning up some of the world's most polluted places where human health is at high risk, especially children. So we have a very strong public health focus and focus on low- and middle-income countries.
Alexandra Arriaga: Out of curiosity, what are some of the most polluted places on Earth?
Angela Bernhardt: Well, Jack's been to pretty much all of them. We used to publish a report. We published it for 10 years, the World's Worst Polluted Places. Some of them were Sumgayit in Azerbaijan, which there's a big petrochemical industry there and former Soviet Union country. A lot of these plants, when the Soviet Union fell apart, were not kept up, decommissioned properly, so they become like toxic time bombs. Jack did a lot of work in e-waste burning fields in Ghana, Agbogbloshie, where e-waste burning causes massive amounts of pollution and public health issues. And you want to add a couple of other-
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, I would say we work in, what, 45 different-
Angela Bernhardt: 50. 50 countries, I think.
Jack Caravanos: 50 countries. Low- and middle-income countries. And each one has its own story, but Zambia has a very polluted lead smelting town with some serious disease. We've been to many sites in India. They're notorious for some of the battery recycling, and there's one city, Bihar, or at least in the state of Bihar, that's the whole town is contaminated. But then next week I'm going to Peru in Ollachea, which is near Puno. And it's a mercury processing plant where an entire village uses mercury to remove gold from ore. So every country has some issues, but the ones we've mentioned are pretty much some of the biggest ones.
Angela Bernhardt: Yeah. And also a big part of our work in addition to the boots on the ground stuff and the research that Jack does is raising awareness about the extent of this issue and industrial pollution in developing countries, and also different lobbying and advocacy efforts to bring this issue higher up on the environment and development agenda globally and drive more funding for pollution control.
Alexandra Arriaga: Very important work. And speaking of pollution, Pure Earth recently released a new report called Pollution Knows No Borders, which illustrates pollution crisis in low- and middle-income countries and, most importantly, what we can do about it. So can you please tell us about this report and why it is so important?
Angela Bernhardt: We started this process ... For many years, the team at Pure Earth has focused on point source pollution, which Professor Jack is very good at explaining. It's great having a master teacher on staff. And so with this report and after our Lancet Commission on pollution and health, which also stepped back and took a very large, kind of global research perspective, we wanted to look at how toxicants were migrating from the low- and middle-income countries we work in to the wealthy, developed nations. And we hadn't seen a report that kind of aggregated everything that was known about that. So then we started this research process, and we were really quite amazed at how much we found. And it became clear pretty quickly that through years of careful regulation of toxicants in the wealthy countries and offshoring polluting industries that we had inadvertently created a toxic feedback loop. So a lot of products and processes have gone to low- and middle-income countries where things aren't regulated, but because of global trade and the global ecosystem, poisonous substances are coming back to us in air, water, in products, and in food. So it really is in everyone's interest, no matter where the pollution is being generated, that we're all connected by this invisible threat of toxic pollution. And we have to address it at the source.
Alexandra Arriaga: So it is important that we all focus on pollution overseas or abroad, given that it could come back.
Angela Bernhardt: It does come back.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah. And when you think of contamination, of course you have air and water and soil. And in environmental health, too often our disciplines are compartmentalized. You have the air pollution people studying those dispersions, and you have the water and the soil. But this is sort of the first time we looked at all three of those medias — air, water, soil — and not just entering our biosphere, but entering our consumer products, our toys, entering our water, entering our diet, our cosmetics. So all of these are slowly inputting and affecting health.
Alexandra Arriaga: And so when we talk about these people who are affected by pollution, who are they? And can you tell us a little more about them?
Jack Caravanos: Well, of course, a fair amount of this contamination is occurring in low- and middle-income countries, developing countries whose economies are progressing and we see increased uses in batteries, increased uses in plastics, increased uses in minerals. And of course there's a lot of contamination there. And Pure Earth and Angela and I have been to some places, and we have horror stories. So they're dirty areas. However, the materials do find their way into our products. So we have artisanal ceramicists in Mexico using lead glaze for pottery. And some of it is decorative, some of it is for cooking. And eventually people bring it into the US, and people import it into the US. So as an example, I was in East Harlem about nine months ago, I saw a little store, a little artisanal souvenir store, and I bought some pottery, and it was all lead glazed and leachable lead. And I'm thinking, "In today's day and age, in 2018, how can this still be happening?" And that's just one example of how stuff in low- and middle-income countries ultimately comes to us.
Alexandra Arriaga: Well, I guess and it's also that you obviously are very conscious about these things, so you did think, "Well, let me check what the glaze is made of." But most people, honestly, they'd probably buy it, and they don't even give it a second thought. They're just like, "Let me wash it, make sure it's clean." But-
Jack Caravanos: Yeah.
Angela Bernhardt: But they don't have their little lead check kit that-
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, we have the lead check, a little pencil where you rub it and if it changes color, it's a sign of lead-containing glaze. There's a regulatory dilemma because if the glaze is on a pot that's for decorative purposes versus food, you don't have to label it. So this is a problem. So when I confronted the owner of the store, I said "plomo?" And he said, "No, no, no plomo.
Alexandra Arriaga: Plomo is lead.
Jack Caravanos: Yes, of course. And sure enough, he can say that because it's not for food. This is a legal product, but you're not supposed to put food in it. Meanwhile, it's a pot, so you know he's going to put some salsa or something in there.
Alexandra Arriaga: Interesting.
Angela Bernhardt: And then one of the stories that we highlighted in the report, we partnered with a nonprofit reporting organization called Circle of Blue, and they did some excellent reporting interviewing farmers in India and Indonesia and finding that in climate, water-stressed areas, farmers have no other option other to use toxic wastewater to irrigate their fields because there's very limited groundwater in some of these areas because of climate and drought. And so they know that this water is contaminated. With all the industrial growth, say there's multiple factories upstream from a river, and they have to take that water that's all kinds of heavy metals being dumped into and diverted and irrigate, use it to irrigate their crops. And these farmers are ... They're standing in the water, their children are standing in the water, they have skin ailments, other diseases. And what was kind of most poignant about this reporting was that the farmer said, "We know that this food is contaminated, and we don't bring it home to our families. We take it, and we sell it to Delhi." So they have a small plot of land, and they use the scarce clean groundwater that they have to grow their own vegetables to feed their own families. So then one of the reports that Jack found for us when we were writing and doing the research was a recent health alert from New York City that 50% of, what was it, chili spices were contaminated, have been found to ... can be contaminated with lead. So we don't yet have the ability to trace the supply chain to see, well, where is that coming from? But when you see reporting like this, and this is happening, and we also reference several academic studies that also back this up, it's not just anecdotal, that more and more industrial wastewater is being used for irrigation, you start to kind of see like, "Oh, maybe that's why so much chili powder in New York City is contaminated with lead."
Alexandra Arriaga: Oh, no. And so for people that are listening and don't have lead kits at home, how can we stay safe? It just seems like there's so many dangers out there, and I don't want to eat chili flakes now.
Jack Caravanos: It is a challenge. I mean, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have programs to monitor what's coming in. In general, staying with name brand products and foods that the US produces and distributes is probably a bit safer because the monitoring is so much higher. USDA Department of Agriculture and FDA and EPA regulate that. But you know New York, it's such a multicultural city. That's why we love New York. It's all sorts of spices from the old country, whatever ethnicity, and those are the challenging ones, is making sure there are regulations that catch some of that. Because we don't want to stop that, but we are seeing mercury-containing skin whitening creams still coming into the New York market. And the health department periodically chases them down and catches them. But people like these creams in their home countries and bring them here illegally and sell them. Not quite even black market, you could just go Downtown and get some of these creams that have mercury. So it's a constant vigilance in trying to stay safe. But in general, some of our biggest problems are the materials that come from overseas.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah. So obviously it sounds like all the issues that are being highlighted in the report are very relevant. If you could get the word out to a particular audience about any of this, who would it be, and what would you say?
Angela Bernhardt: I would like to get the message out to major philanthropies. So Bloomberg, Gates, the Wellcome Trust, McArthur, Ford, Rockefeller foundations, that they really need to take this issue on and create major programs to help control industrial pollution in low- and middle-income countries because it is in our interest. It's in everyone's interest. And just an interesting fact that in 2016, private philanthropy in the US was totaled about 390 billion. Of that 390 billion, only 70 million, not billion, 70 million was directed towards pollution. And pollution, as we know from many studies, including our Lancet Commission, is the largest environmental cause of death in the world, killing nine million people a year. And that's an undercount. So only 0.002% of US philanthropy is going towards pollution control. And the thing is is that we know how to solve these problems, we have decades of experience in the West, so this is not a mystery. We know how to do it. And we personally work with many governments who are ready and they want to do this work, and they need resources, they need funding, they need capacity building. So it's all a very solvable problem that's lacking the resources.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, and I absolutely agree and want to highlight that one of our challenges is that environmental pollution, environmental disease is sort of insidious, and it's hidden. So things like malaria and HIV and dengue are fairly sort of easy to target. You know the solutions, you could see the harm. But the multitude of hazards in our diet, our products, our water is slowly affecting us, but it's hard to pinpoint any one condition. So that's the hardest thing because people say, "Well, how do I know it's mercury that's causing this and not some other chemical?" And it is a bit of a challenge, but there's a lot of good science coming out, and with some genetic testing and biomarkers, I think we'll be able to show more and more how some of these agents are affecting humans.
Alexandra Arriaga: So obviously you both sound very motivated about environmental causes, but what personally drew you to work with Pure Earth? And can you talk about how your work there compliments with your teaching at NYU?
Jack Caravanos: Yes. I was working in US environmental health and occupational health for many years, and I have to say the watershed moment for me is when I visited India on a Pure Earth project. I spent two weeks there traveling through many, many places, and I realized the amount of disease that could be prevented there. So it was a shocking one. And I'm sure many of my students will say when they finally get to a very poor country, not the US, they say, "Wow, I had no idea." And that happened to me, and I was in my 50s, so it's shocking. And that's why the rest of my career has been focused on addressing that. And it's very important to understand that things that happen there do come back and affect us here. So it's not like, "Oh, gee, that's sad what's happening in those countries, but what's it to me?" Well, hopefully, this report will address that.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah. And so if you had more resources, such as more staff or funding or technology or equipment, to invest in your individual projects, to really bring them to the next level, where would you spend those resources, and why?
Angela Bernhardt: Wow. So many. The list is so long. But when I think about this, I think, well, I would love a big pile of money to support grassroots pollution fighters around the world because, as a communications person, I'm monitoring what's happening around the world, and I'm really seeing this growth of grassroots organizations in these countries. And people are getting close to a tipping point that the pollution levels are intolerable. So if we had the funding, we could go in there and organize these groups and give them the training tools that we have to do the assessment work, measuring the health impacts, and to actually do the cleanups. And also to support local governments, regional governments, national governments to make the policies that they need to really change their systems and create robust environmental and health protection government agencies for their citizens.
Jack Caravanos: And I have to say I'm thrilled to be at NYU, especially since the College of Global Public Health has a true commitment to addressing things at really a global level. And it wasn't mentioned yet, but Ami Pradhan, one of the authors of the study that helped out in getting some of these facts, is a graduate student and an MPH student in Global Health. And she was very, very influential in the report, and she's just one of many that I'm tapping into. So being here at NYU, teaching environmental health, working with my Environmental Health students in how to measure contamination is going to just be wonderful for both Pure Earth and NYU because all those skills ultimately translate to good opportunities for future employment.
Alexandra Arriaga: So speaking of future employment, what advice would you give to maybe recent MPH graduates or for those of us who are still in the program that want to pursue a career in this area of work?
Jack Caravanos: The regulatory world is very big and continues to grow. We do not have a global environmental police agency. The UN does all it can, of course, but it's a treaties-based organization. So I really do believe more and more regulations get written, whether it's in the US, whether it's in Brazil, whether it's in Zambia, and that those produce jobs. We're also finding a lot of ministries need to come up to speed on this issue. So all of a sudden a report like this comes out and people say, "Hey, we didn't know about this." Sometimes it's not intended, they just didn't know about it. So I'm hoping that positions in those countries will also become available. But it's for me, I have a complete confidence that an MPH in Environmental Health from NYU will definitely get you a job pretty fast.
Alexandra Arriaga: Great. And so when you and your team at Pure Earth come up against barriers and challenges, what motivates you to keep going and put in the long hours of work both inside the classroom and in the field? Where does that motivation come from?
Angela Bernhardt: I'm very inspired by our team out in the field and people in country. Our folks in Indonesia, in Mongolia, in Tajikistan, and many other places, they do incredible work in very difficult political situations. And they get stuff done with a small amount of money, and they're just out there on the front lines saving children's lives, and they really inspire me, and I want their stories to be heard.
Alexandra Arriaga: Absolutely.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah. It's definitely the success stories that keep us going. There's nothing like doing a cleanup, doing some pre and post blood testing to see what the contaminant changes are, but seeing the community ... And then seeing how you're planting a seed. So you do one cleanup in one country, and they say, "Well that wasn't too bad. We should do more." So it really is grassroots building, and that's great. Indonesia is a good case study there, where we did the first environmental cleanup in Indonesia and helped sponsor it, and now they're doing their own thing, and that's great.
Alexandra Arriaga: Oh, that's amazing.
Jack Caravanos: That is amazing, yeah.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah. And out of curiosity, how good or bad are we doing in New York City in terms of pollution? Do you guys know?
Jack Caravanos: Well, first of all, the US, our air, water and soil and food has never been cleaner. And they are very vigilant. I grew up ... I'm a child of the '60s, and we have seen very polluted rivers, but right now there are whales in the harbor, there are seals, there are turtles. I grew up in Astoria, where you would never think to swim in the East River, but if you don't mind the currents, you could actually ... It's swimmable now. So it has gotten better. There are pockets, and those are challenges to clean up some industries' entire, what they call brownfields. Entire neighborhoods in Newark and Detroit are heavily contaminated. So those are challenges. But again, I think in this report, it highlights that what's happening overseas does come back to affect us.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah.
Alexandra Arriaga: So that seems to be a big message, that we need to care about everything that's going on in the world because it does come back.
Jack Caravanos: It does. And remember just last week we had an oil spill that leaked into the L train in Brooklyn and pretty much generated this odor. A lot of people complained. There were some cases of nausea. So there's still contamination, there's still some bad practices producing those noxious odors on the L train. This was I think just last week. So-
Alexandra Arriaga: Oh, wow.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, just when you thought it was safe to ...
Alexandra Arriaga: Be careful. Be careful out there.
Jack Caravanos: Be careful, yes.
Alexandra Arriaga: And for those listeners that would love to connect with you and learn more about the work that you do, where can they reach out? Where can they find you?
Angela Bernhardt: Please visit our website at www.pureearth.org and sign up for our newsletter, so you can get posts about all the inspirational work that our people in the field are doing under very difficult circumstances. Our Twitter and Instagram handle is @pureearthnow. We're also on Facebook. And we welcome donations of any size, so if people want to support our work-
Alexandra Arriaga: Please, Bill Gates. You already heard the interview, you know what we need it for, we're waiting. Thank you.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, yeah. I'd like to put in a plug for pollution.org, which is our graphical interface with all our sites. So you go to this map, and you zoom into Colombia, you zoom into Ghana, and you could actually see where the sites are. And in many cases, see pictures. And it's not just our sites from Pure Earth, it's also sites in Europe and also EPA sites, so it's a great ... If you like Google Earth and you like to zoom in and find things. Now, regrettably, Venezuela is not there because there's not much global work going on in Venezuela.
Alexandra Arriaga: Unfortunately.
Jack Caravanos: Yeah, we don't ... There are some countries we don't work in, we can't work in. North Africa's tough, parts of Africa are tough, Venezuela is tough. But we'll get there. Cuba, one day we'll be there also.
Alexandra Arriaga: I'm sure we'll get there.
Jack Caravanos: Yes.
Alexandra Arriaga: We'll make it happen.
Jack Caravanos: We will.
Alexandra Arriaga: Well, guys, thank you so much for your time. It really was a pleasure talking to you and learning more about Pure Earth. Thanks again, and we hope to see you soon.
Angela Bernhardt: Thank you.
Jack Caravanos: And thank you.