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09/13/2012 04:48 PM     print story email story  

Need a Case for Better Chemicals Management? How About 1 Million Annual Deaths

SustainableBusiness.com News

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 Programme (UNEP).

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 Green Economy."

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 waste stream.

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:

Website: www.unep.org/hazardoussubstances/



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