Hi Reddit. My name is Richard Fuller, founder of Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute), and author of the upcoming “The Brown Agenda: My Mission to Clean Up the World's Most Life-Threatening Pollution”. For the last 16 years, I’ve devoted myself to cleaning up the world’s most polluted places. Though highly underreported, pollution is estimated to account for about one in every seven deaths worldwide. Its the biggest killer in the world, no shit.

Pure Earth has cleaned up more than 80 toxic polluted sites around the world, to the benefit of over 4.2 million people in more than 20 countries. Here’s an article Bloomberg wrote about our work in Ukraine.

Here’s a video about us that outlines our general mission.



EDIT: As of Wednesday the 22nd at 1:30pm, Rich won't be checking the AMA regularly. Thanks so much for asking questions and supporting our mission!

Comments: 87 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

brownboy1317 karma

I'm a resident of New Delhi, India. While your organisation's focus seems to be on heavily polluted specific areas, I was wondering if you guys have any ideas that can help tackle the ever increasing levels of air pollution in cities like mine. The current set of solutions essentially seem to revolve around "drive less". However, that isn't really a feasible option, since public transport is overloaded as is and is especially a nightmare in summers. We're getting more people and more cars day by day with no relief in sight. Do you have any suggestions or opinions on the matter?

PureEarthNow11 karma

My sympathies to you and the daily problem of air in Delhi. Through our partners in the newly formed Indian Alliance on Health and Pollution (www.indiahealthpollution.org) we are working to direct solutions to air pollution in Delhi, amongst other issues. The first steps are to change the quality of diesel fuel (this is underway we understand), and next to stop outdoor burning. There are cleaner technologies that can make the most difference. Changing driving practices alone can be quite impractical, as you pointed out. We need to continue to push for cleaner fuel, better catalytic converters, better controls on diesel emissions, and the like. There are success stories out there already - converting the two-stroke rickshaws some years ago is a good example. It needs so much attention, as the numbers are getting worse.

2kun8 karma

I am currently studying civil engineering, partly because I too wish to help reducing pollution in the environment, especially in densely populated countries like Bangladesh. Was there any particular reason that made you decide to pursue your career path? What were some of the hurdles in creating Pure Earth and how did you overcome them? How would you recommend one to follow a career path in environmental care/entrepreneurship?

PureEarthNow3 karma

I applaud anyone studying engineering, of any type. I am an electrical engineer, and we geeks are truly the way of the future! Practical solutions are needed, and implementation. We spend too much time talking about problems rather than just solving them. Its up to us engineers to make it happen.

bretherenley6 karma

Hi Richard!

5 questions (I hope that's allowed): 1. Polluting is easy, cleaning is not. Aside from pollution remediation, does your organization undertake efforts to change people's polluting behaviours? If so, how? If not, why not? 2. What's generally the greatest logistical hurdle to these clean-up projects? 3. How is your organization funded? 4. Has your organization ever been met with local opposition in heavily polluted developing areas? 5. How sustainable is pollution remediation in the areas that you have tackled?

PureEarthNow8 karma

Many questions! OK, let me give it a shot.
1. and 2. Yes, the key to managing pollution is first of all to change to non-polluting technologies and techniques. Once done, then there is often a need to clean up the mess from earlier.

For mercury contamination in gold mining, for example, we train miners in mercury-free technologies that also increase yield. For polluting industries with a contaminated site, we will never work on the clean-up without the industry stopping the initial exposure. This usually requires technology, investment and enforcement on their part, which we often help to pull together with various partners.

  1. Our organization is funded by donations from governments and international organizations (like USAID, European Commission DG DevCo, World Bank, ADB and others), some foundations like Rockefeller Brothers, and individuals as well. They fund us because the public health extent of pollution is simply enormous. So much needs to be done.

  2. A number of times we have met with problems where local politicians have their hand out for donations, or are stalling for other reasons. We have never had opposition from the poor who are affected by the pollution. They are who we work for.

  3. We expect and plan that the work we do is sustainable, and the programs expands to other regions in that country. So far we have not seen any backsliding. We do watch - staff in each country stay on top of old and new projects.

Thanks for all these great questions!

awakenedbedpost6 karma

With your great concern for the environment, do you follow a vegan diet?

PureEarthNow3 karma

I don't. Bacon is just too delicious!

If I were to be concerned about my consumption and toxicants, it is just not the food industry I would boycott. I'd have to boycott the entire economy. The processing of raw materials to make plastics, metals, everything we use - this is the main source of contamination. The trick is to mine process using the best and cleanest technologies, and be willing to pay for that. The circular economy is a must for the human race to thrive.

DrizzyDroz4 karma

As a chemist and more specifically a "green" chemist. I have a few questions about your cleaning processes and testing.

1.) What is the most toxic substance your company has had the displeasure of cleaning up and what additional safety measures did you take to ensure the health of your employees? (e.g. highly radioactive substances, carcinogenic inhalants, etc.)

2.) How is the toxic waste "disposed of"? Is it stored in a more controlled environment or sent to specialty sites that may treat the waste?

3.) What metrics do you use to determine that an area is "clean" and contaminants haven't leeched into the sediment or groundwater?

4.) Can any of the toxic materials you take care of be recycled or do you currently try to purify contaminants for useful components?

Thank you so much for you time answering our questions and the work you're doing cleaning up the mistakes of bad science!

PureEarthNow3 karma

We have cleaned up many highly toxic substances, from radionuclides to TNT, MNCB, and hex chromium. Many of the toxicants we deal with are both acutely poisonous and carcinogenic.

All of our work is done with full protective gear (PPE) when it is called for, under the guidance of an expert with detailed understanding of that particular problem. We find experts throughout our Technical Advisory Board, and senior engineers will go visit sites, design projects with the best science and knowledge available, and then oversee the project from both an efficacy and safety perspective.

We generally follow USEPA guidelines for standards, or local guidelines if they are available and appropriate.

Sometimes the toxicant can be recycled - it depends on the concentration and toxicant itself.

I hope this answers your questions. Green chemistry is the way to go!

spacemonk423 karma

I live in Santiago, Chile. Coming from Buenos Aires, the air here gets really bad in winter, especially when it doesn't rain enough (like this season). Have you done work here? What is the overall outlook on the evolution of cities like Santiago? Is it an issue of reducing emissions or is there a technology-based solution for the future like extensive use of green roofing, increasing forestation, etc?

PureEarthNow1 karma

Hi. We have had a little work in Santiago (and some in BA too), looking at contaminated sites, but we are not currently active there. Our partner, Fundacion Chile, is really excellent, and may be a good group to approach.

godel323 karma

Any hope for us? In you expert opinion?

PureEarthNow2 karma

Yes. We'll get this fixed. I wrote earlier that we tend to pessimism these days, mostly because of the failure of climate change talks. But in so much of the development agenda we have had fabulous successes.

Have a look back at an earlier post for the examples. Overseas, birth rates are dropping, and standards of living are rising. The amount of violence and war are going down. So many good results on life expectancy, infant mortality, education of women, access to medical services. These stories don't make the news, but they are the majority of outcomes.

We've already got pollution well sorted out in most of the west. The same can be done for the low and middle income countries. Its just work and time we need....

MysticalTurban3 karma

Hi, as a 19 year old who has a great interest in pollution/energy, which energy resources (such as nuclear, solar etc.) are most important environmentally and economically for the future? Also what do you suggest I do to find a career in area similar to what you do? I'm already planning on studying energy resources at uni but I'm still unsure where I should take that afterwards. Thanks

PureEarthNow3 karma

Glad you are thinking this way, and I wish I had a good suggestion for you, but from my experience there is no easy answer to give - I did not even plan to work in this area when I was at school. The best advice I can suggest is to do whatever subjects really interest you, and be bold and brave. Wherever you can, look to see what is needed to solve a problem, and be dogged and persistent to get that done.

Also it might sounds a bit lame and trite to say it also, but be ready for failure. I think that 90 percent of the things I have tried have failed. I just keep at it until something good happens.

deep_sea_explorer3 karma

Hello! I am an environmental science student/geography student going into my senior year of undergrad. My question is: What long-term solutions do you have for areas that simply have no way to manage their new, cleaned-up areas?

Last summer, I spent some time in Guatemala (Lake Atitlan) to collect data and learn about water quality/overall environmental health of the area. The towns we visited were primarily of Mayan tradition. Although there were many local Guatemalans working to educate these communities on the importance of waste management and healthy agricultural practices, their simply aren't the funds to physically do anything about it.

Their government has some money set aside for environmental projects and clean up, but (from what I was told by the Guatemalan grad students we were working with), they money tends to magically "disappear."

Even if someone like yourself were to go in to Lake Atitlan, clean up the lake and establish new agricultural programs and build water treatment plants -- do you think that would last? Without the funds to manage the upkeep, the clean lake could not possibly be sustainable. What solutions do you have for situations like this?

PureEarthNow2 karma

There are many common problems described here. The lack of capacity of management agencies often leads to these issues. You point to the solutions as well - projects need to have their own sustainability built in. The resources to maintain what has been achieved must be budgeted and available before the first step begins. It requires buy-in from many agencies, and patience.

praisebetopeyton3 karma

Quick question: how can I help you?

PureEarthNow2 karma

Such a nice question! Many many thanks!!!!!

There is a lot to do, and I suggest you have a look at our website, and see what works for you.

sbhikes3 karma

What about plastic pollution from trash? I saw incredible amounts of plastic trash in India and plastic is becoming a global problem in the ocean. I remember reading something about a woman in India who had come up with a way to convert plastic back into oil. Is there anything you are aware of that is being used to combat plastic pollution?

PureEarthNow2 karma

A complex problem, with many entrepreneurial solutions like the one you have mentioned.

I have not had much direct experience with plastic bags, as they are not directly toxic to humans. They are certainly one of the most visible aspects of the pollution agenda.

1320Fastback3 karma

Are there countries worse than China regarding pollution from manufacturing?

PureEarthNow3 karma


China is a polluted country, no doubt, and we pay close attention to it because it manufactures so much of our consumer-economy products.

But it is not the most polluted country. Imho that title goes to the former soviet union. The Soviets manufactured without any pollution controls, much of it for the cold war (weapons and the like). There are regions in Russia, Kazakstan, and others that are destroyed, toxic nightmares. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people living in these places. And almost no efforts to clean them up.

warry0r3 karma

Hi Richard, What should I invest in: radiation suits or gas masks? Maybe both? The current state of pollution, i don't want to wake up, step outside and get burned to a crisp due to losing our atmosphere.

PureEarthNow7 karma

Neither worries me.

Living in the US, life is good, getting cleaner by the year. The ozone layer is getting better, our drinking water is clean and well protected, and our wildlife has so many caring for its wellbeing.

In low and middle income countries we find pollution to be a worry. The industrial areas of poor countries house millions who are poisoned. Lets hope you don't live in one of those areas!

BTW, my small investments are in tech stocks! Clean ones, tho...

Originholder3 karma

Im currently working as an Enivironmental Scientist for a consulting firm. I like to say I specialize in NEPA and NPDES for discharge. How did you get into what you are doing and how can I?

PureEarthNow4 karma

My pathway into this area was not standard - check out the story in The Brown Agenda.

I think that volunteering for international work is a great way to go. Pure Earth, of course, but also Engineers Without Borders, and others too. Go for it

Frajer3 karma

How do you clean up pollution?

PureEarthNow1 karma

Well, there is a lot to that question.

First, we look at the type of pollution. Air, water, or soil. Then, we look to see what is the contaminant. Is it bacteria in water? Or lead in soil? Or particulates in air? Then, we look to the source of the pollution. Is it a factory, or a car exhaust, or some small industry? Answering these questions then gives us a set of solutions we can implement. The solutions are no longer rocket science because we have dealt with the worst pollution problems in the United States already. Our water is clean to drink, the air is (mostly good), and the soil safe for kids to play on.

But overseas, though these problems are still huge. The solutions we have used in the US can be transplanted into those poorer countries to help them out. This is what we now need to do, to look after the millions who will die each year because of pollution - almost all of them in poorer countries.

SpumlyChumWack3 karma

What would you say is the largest obstacle to being able to clean up these sort of things? Do you ever have people attempt to stop or threaten you or others while cleaning?

PureEarthNow2 karma

There are two main obstacles. The first is knowledge: knowledge both of the dangers of pollution in these countries (people often do not understand why they are getting sick), and of the way to solve the problem. The second is funding. There is not much funding given to pollution within most countries yet. The international aid community has not made pollution a priority yet, even though it kills so many people.

I have had quite a few exciting run-ins in the last few decades. I just wrote a book called The Brown Agenda - it is available for pre-purchase on Amazon now; it comes out August 11th. You can see what it is like in these poisoned spots from first hand experience!!!

integraltech2 karma

Indoor air pollution kills over 4 million people per year according to WHO, mainly from cooking with solid fuels like wood or coal in developing countries. Do you think solar cookers are a viable replacement?

PureEarthNow1 karma

Particulates from outdoor smog, mostly caused by a combination of low grade fuel and bad engine controls, and power stations burning coal kill millions each year. Particulates from indoor air pollution - burning of dung or wood for cooking - add to this load. The smaller particles, called PM2.5, do the most damage. Like smoke from cigarettes, then pass into the blood from the lungs, and damage the heart and arteries. They increase the rate of heart disease and stroke.

There are many options to change indoor, or household air practices. The most successful involves conversion to gas cooking, and many countries subsidize sale of gas tanks for this reason. Solar cookers are a good alternative too, and have had some traction in a few countries.

The problem needs attention from all angles, and every viable strategy needs to be tried. The number of deaths from air pollution is simply staggering. That 4 million you quote is correct, and three times the number of death from HIV/AIDS, or six times the death rate from malaria.

bannibunny2 karma

Can you tell us about some of the biggest obstacles you face for the work you are trying to accomplish? (Corporations, resources, climate...)

PureEarthNow3 karma

I gave an answer to this - see above

Ariosoto2 karma

For countries such as Indian and China where pollution is rampant and a much larger problem, would you have to change the overall infrastructure to create a more environmentally friendly area? I realize small steps are a necessity but for long term do you think this is the only option?

PureEarthNow2 karma

I see solutions being undertaken step by step. We find that solving one problem at a time, methodically and carefully, we get there.

After all, the US in the 60s was full of toxic pesticides, with terrible air quality in industrial centers and bad drinking water all over. But step by step these problems have been fixed.

As an engineer, I think that trying to solve this problem with some large political solution will not work. Look at how difficult it has been for climate change. For pollution, we just have to be practical, persistent, step by step.

orc20152 karma

Which inventions/processes do you think will be making a big difference in a few years that are not on people's radar?

Also, what do you think of: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MlyQlTX35btn51I6h_W8SJBemeIVv-5OVkR4BdPFTKA/edit?usp=sharing? Not tied to pollution but may be relevant to you. Thanks

PureEarthNow2 karma

I read your idea for a remote controlled boat that collects rain falling at sea. Fascinating!!! I loved it!

FormulaicResponse2 karma

A few questions:

1) What would you say is the health impact on children in the areas you have focused on? For example the areas that have had significant lead exposure or exposure to burning e-waste. I'm mainly wondering about the lasting economic impact of permanent health damage to the next generation of adults, and to what degree that is expected to impact developing economies.

2) How possible is it to change things at the systemic level, so that instead of finding better ways to recycle toxic waste that is dumped in a country, there is just no more toxic waste dumped there? Is the main problem with the poverty in the affected areas or the legal system of the areas doing the affecting in your view?

3) How do you battle entrenched attitudes and behaviors when it comes to further polluting already polluted areas?

PureEarthNow2 karma

The health impact on children is the most important concern in our work. Heavy metals such as lead and mercury cause long term damage to developing brains, and the implications for developing economies, especially local economies in places with widespread metals contamination, is grave. These problems get a high priority from us as a result.

The issue with entrenched attitudes is real. As I have noted earlier, the causes of disease in highly polluted areas are often not understood. People who make pottery using leaded glaze in Mexico, as an example, are usually affected by the glaze themselves. Over many generations, they have lower IQ than they should. This often makes it difficult for them to understand the toxicity of their product.

Education is key, and slow, consistent presence is needed to properly educate locals. We take the long road here, knowing that we need to have a presence over a long period of time in order to be able to affect a difference.

Because diseases from pollution are difficult to track in poorer countries (the cancer can be long after, or the disease might look like other better known ones), the cause is often not related by physicians. This also requires a long slow education process. All in all, its a lot of work.

Marylandman1012 karma

my questions a bit broad, but are you optimistic about the future in regards to the environment?

PureEarthNow3 karma

I am.

There has been so much success in the past decades on environmental issues. I think the pessimism that has occurred because of the failure of action to solve climate change has given us a faulty overview of the whole.

Our own pollution issues are well in hand in the wealthy countries. New pollutants, like flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors have fantastic energy around them to manage them safely. Our lakes and rivers are cleaner than ever.

Overseas, there's work to do. But I see the signs in those countries of the kind of energy that worked here, in the 60s. A sense that pollution is unconscionable. Plus, biodiversity projects have had so many successes.

Most important, overseas, birth rates are dropping, and standards of living are rising. The amount of violence and war are going down. So many good results on life expectancy, infant mortality, education of women, access to medical services.

OK, an international response to climate change is doing poorly, but there are local and national success stories all over.

We'll make it. I'm sure of it. We just gotta keep at it.

iflyboats2 karma

Is it your goal to prevent poor countries from developing by destroying their industries?

PureEarthNow3 karma

Absolutely not.

We need to help countries to develop cleaner industries.

jeepdave1 karma

But do you compare lives "saved" vs lives "lost" when you hinder economic development?

PureEarthNow3 karma

Better management of pollution increases economic development, not hinders it. There is a solid body of research that shows that toxic pollution reduces economic activity. Research from OECD and the World Bank, as well as University of Chicago and LSE have looked at green economies versus dirty ones, and find better long term outcomes for economies with planned and well implemented pollution management.

This makes sense when you think of the effect of pollution - a reduction in human capacity through illness and early death. Productive people are health people.

Additional research on the drain to public coffers because of health impacts show the same result. All of this research indicates that the Kuznets curve is not applicable to toxic pollution, if this is where your understanding has come when you say that pollution management hinders economic development. This is a myth that needs to be busted.

jeepdave2 karma

But that is all well and good in already thriving and growing economies. But when a third world country is just getting into the game hindering it with overly environmental concerns could kill the industrial revolution before it even gets started. And like it or not there are industries that will always be toxic in nature. You do agree that holding a country to third world status due to environmental concerns is very damning and costly to it's populace, yes? I mean lifting people out of poverty will do far more health wise for citizens than a million coal scrubbers. Cheap energy that provides electricity and HVAC to people is substantial.

PureEarthNow3 karma

Jeepdave, you have a mindset here that is incorrect. Think about technologies that leapfrog the old paradigms of the past. Newly developing countries to not fill their streets with copper cable for tele[phones anymore. They go straight to wireless. This has enable cheaper, more functional, and faster access to the poor, at lower cost not higher.

A mining example from an issue we know well. Mercury is a serious contaminant used in gold mining, by small scale operators. However, techniques that are mercury free can be implemented for similar investment levels that provide for higher yields. What is missing to go straight to these technologies is knowledge and know how. Fixing development into old dirty technologies can be more expensive, and less productive.

Efferri2 karma

Do you think it is (will be) possible to completely remove the garbage patches in our oceans?

PureEarthNow1 karma

I don't have much knowledge about this problem, but read that some organisms/bacteria had evolved to eat the stuff. After all, it has a lot of energy!

So if we stop throwing our plastics away, maybe the forces of nature will sort it out. I don't know. But nature is stronger than us, for sure.

wantedwanted2 karma

Hey, wondering if you've had any experience in this in the 'developed' world, too, and if so do you find it easier to get places in developing countries to adopt cleaner technology? I live in Canada, which is one of the world's worst polluters. There is a lot of resistance on the part of the government to enforce change - regulation, oversight, EIAs - these are all responsibilities of corporations in Alberta at least, and the effects are devastating for a lot of communities, especially Aboriginals. Do you interact with government a lot, or is this on an individual, business-by-business basis? Also, do you think economic/capitalist development is actually reconcilable with environmentel reform? I sure fucking don't, but I don't know a lot about this. Thanks!

PureEarthNow1 karma

I've heard about some of these problems with Aboriginals and tar sands. Its not a pretty scene. I hope you can do something about it. We're only focusing in low and middle income countries, where it is not advocacy that is needed, but project experience.

I think the economic system we have can work with management of the environment, but it needs strong governance. The tragedy of the commons, those costs that are off balance sheet, they require regulations and controls to bring them back to the profit calculation. There are ways to do this, and models of successes in regulations that need to be replicated.

And I understand your frustration. When you are in the middle of it, it looks impossible. Vote for the good guys. Keep trying.

MorphineBear2 karma

Just curious, what is your educational background for this? Major in college would be fine.

PureEarthNow2 karma

I have an undergraduate degree in Engineering from a while ago - Melbourne University in 1982. Maybe one day I'll get around to that pesky PhD!!!

rotaryatomization2 karma

Hi Richard, I am an entry level environmental consultant (hydrogeologist) that has been interested in working overseas where I feel the work is more pertinent. Is my background marketable in an industry that appears dominated by engineers? What advice would you have to someone looking to transition into your field/scope?

PureEarthNow2 karma

The market for environmental engineers overseas is small but growing. The middle income countries (China, India, Brazil, etc) have local companies, along with international companies like C2HM Hill and ERM. One suggestion would be to work for a larger company, with an objective of joining in to overseas projects.

best of luck!

knitwasabi2 karma


PureEarthNow1 karma

Hey! See you in August!

How I got into that - its a long story. Check out the book - The Brown Agenda.

HeKnee2 karma

Why was your org originally called Blacksmith Institute? Seems like you've really changed 180 degrees with the name/purpose.

PureEarthNow3 karma

Hi! I originally called the non-profit Blacksmith Institute for a few reasons. First, I wanted to avoid too much anything that smacked of advocacy, because from the beginning we wanted to be doing projects - solving problems. Next, the image of a blacksmith really appealed. A person working in a hot, dirty environment, doing honest work, and creating something that was useful, and durable. I like this image.

But I was wrong. The name does not conjure up our mission unless you explain it. So, we spent some time thinking on a new name, and Pure Earth won the day. Interestingly, it was Dev Patel, the amazing actor from Slumdog Millionaire, who helped us make the final decision. He's one of our ambassadors, and during some discussions he tipped us over the edge, and Pure Earth it is. We can use either name legally, and in many of our country offices we continue with Blacksmith Institute simply because there is a great deal of name recognition around that name.

But our purpose has remained the same since the beginning. Cleaning up and solving pollution problems, and transferring knowledge to countries so they can continue without us.

darkblue2171 karma

Many thanks for doing an AMA, Mr Fuller.

As a student of Environmental Science at the moment, what can you advise is the best way to enter the field and ensure I'm doing all I can whilst studying in order to gain experience, in a field which is mostly reserved to the learned?

PureEarthNow2 karma

Internships are always great. Try engineering firms as well as the usual NGOs. Try also for internships with the UN agencies.

Best of luck.