Poisons linked to industrial and agricultural chemicals
contribute to more than one million deaths annually and are among the top five
leading causes of mortality worldwide, reports the United Nations Environment
The dangers are highest in emerging economies where
industrial production is growing quickly but safeguards related to how
chemicals are produced and used for applications such as farming are still
developing, reports UNEP in its Global Chemical Outlook.
Overall, global chemical sales are forecast to grow 3%
annually between now and 2050; Africa and the Middle East could see growth
rates of 40% through 2020, and Latin America isn't far behind.
Taken together, these trends underscore the need for more
coordinated action to prevent illegal dumping and to develop safer alternatives
to hazardous chemicals.
"Pollution and disease related to the unsustainable
use, production and disposal of chemicals can, in fact, hinder progress towards
key development targets by affecting water supplies, food security, well-being
or worker productivity," says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General
and UNEP Executive Director. "Reducing hazards and improving chemicals
management - at all stages of the supply chain - is, thus, an essential
component of the transition to a low carbon, resource efficient and inclusive
The costs related to poisonings from pesticides in
sub-Saharan Africa, for example, could reach $90 billion by 2020; already, the
costs exceed total development aid given to the region for basic health
services excluding those related to HIV/AIDS.
UN member states committed to embracing more sustainable
methods of chemicals management back in 2002, but the pace of progress has been
slow, reports the Global Chemicals Outlook. The report notes that only a
fraction of the 140,000 chemicals used on the market today have been evaluated
for their effects on human health and the environment.
The most obvious threats come from inorganic chemicals
such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid. Organic
chemicals such as styrene, formaldehyde, toluene and acetaldehyde are routinely
among the air pollutants released in the highest quantities.
In many emerging countries, synthetic chemicals are
becoming the biggest components of the waste stream, says the report.
Electronic waste (e-waste) is also a contributing factor: up to 75% of the
e-waste generated by Europe and 80% from the US isn't accounted for in the
Here are some of the negative impacts catalogued in the report:
In Sudan, the mortality risk for pregnant women involved
in farming is three times that for the rest of the population
In Ecuador, bathing and drinking water used by villagers
near an oil extraction site contained levels of petroleum hydrocarbons up to
288 times higher than European Community standards
On the flip slide, there are real economic benefits to
sustainable chemicals management, says the UNEP report.
For example, integrated pest management (IPM) is yielding
productivity gains at potato farms in Ecuador, while helping decrease
production costs 20%. In Indonesia, an IPM program has cut the use of
pesticides by 50% while improving yields by 10%.
Responsible e-waste recycling methods are also starting
to catch on. For example, in Ghana, the introduction of safer more efficient
recycling methods that avoid burning has boosted the amount of revenue
generated per recycled desktop computer by 45%, says UNEP.
Slowly but surely, major companies are starting to get
the picture that humans are being exposed to way more harmful substances than
we often realize.
Johnson & Johnson bowed to pressure during the
summer, pledging to remove potentially harmful and carcinogenic substances from
its products by 2015. Earlier this week, big retailer H&M Group announced a
plan to get rid of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) by January 1, 2013.
For the full UNEP report on the worldwide impact of
chemicals and the benefits of embracing sustainable management policies: