VANCOUVER - As chairman of the International Zinc Association and head of a major global zinc producer, Don Lindsay admits he has a vested interest in boosting demand for the mineral.
But the CEO of Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX:TCK.B), and father of two young girls, says his passion goes beyond the boardroom and into developing nations where zinc deficiency is a critical problem that leads to thousands of deaths each year, particularly in children.
"When you learn it's the fifth-leading cause of death in Africa ... and we are the second largest producer of zinc you think, 'There's must be something we can do,"' said Lindsay.
Lindsay's non-profit zinc association is trying to raise awareness through a campaign called "Zinc Saves Kids."
The campaign got a big boost recently when it was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, a group started by former U.S. president Bill Clinton that includes world leaders and executives and has raised billions for social causes.
"Malaria gets lot of attention, AIDS get a lot of attention, but diarrhea kills more people than those two by far. But you don't see a concert for diarrhea by the rock stars ... It's not a sexy disease," said Lindsay.
Lindsay hopes the Clinton group's backing will help change that, along with other initiatives his association is working on.
Zinc is essential for all living organisms and is vital in children for brain development and growth.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said zinc deficiency is the fifth leading risk factor involved with deadly diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria in developing countries.
In a 2007 study of more than 6,000 children, the WHO found a simple zinc treatment reduced mortality rates related to zinc deficiency.
In an article published Thursday, the WHO said not enough is being done to tackle zinc deficiency despite promising treatments.
It said child survival funding increased by 63 per cent between 2003 to 2006, while funding for key strategies for diarrhea management fell by 59 per cent.
"Diarrhea continues to kill nearly two million children each year, leads to millions of hospitalizations and contributes to long-term nutritional consequences," the WHO article states.
"Because the treatments we have available today are safe, effective and inexpensive, community-based diarrhea management should be a top global health priority."
The WHO said zinc supplements are not available and not enough is being done to bring the resources to those who need it.
Lindsay said the zinc industry has a two-pronged approach to improving the problem. The first is getting zinc tablets to children in developing countries. That's the short-term fix.
The longer-term solution is getting it into the soil. About 50 per cent of the world's agricultural soils are estimated to be zinc deficient, reducing crop productivity and nutritional value.
The zinc association is working with the fertilizer industry and governments to encourage the use of zinc in fertilizers.
They have a plan to spend $1.8 million over three years to produce 150,000 tonnes a year of zinc-fortified fertilizer. That is an estimated 10 per cent increase in such fertilizers, that is expected to reach six million people.
Lindsay acknowledged that getting zinc into more fertilizers is also a benefit to the zinc industry.
"But I would hate to think people would say that's a bad thing," Lindsay said.
"Zinc also increases crop productivity, which counteracts the ethanol disaster where a third of the corn in the U.S. goes to ethanol, which raises the price of food for the rest of the world."
"Just because people are cynical doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. It's the right thing to do," he said.
Lindsay said the goal is to raise awareness of the problem so that the message comes from beyond the zinc industry.