News / Health

Health, Environmental Hazards From Chemicals Are Rising

Activists demonstrate against Lynas Corporation to raise questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste, in Gebeng, east of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 19, 2012.Activists demonstrate against Lynas Corporation to raise questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste, in Gebeng, east of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 19, 2012.
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Activists demonstrate against Lynas Corporation to raise questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste, in Gebeng, east of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 19, 2012.
Activists demonstrate against Lynas Corporation to raise questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste, in Gebeng, east of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 19, 2012.
Lisa SchleinMichael Lipin
GENEVA — The United Nations is calling for urgent action to reduce the growing health and environmental hazards from exposure to chemical substances.

In a new study titled “Global Chemicals Outlook,” the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) says sound management of chemicals could save millions of lives and provide an economic bonanza to nations worldwide.

The report presents a stark view of a world that is overwhelmed by increased volumes of chemicals.  It says little is known about the estimated 143,000 chemicals being produced.

The U.N. Environment Program says only a fraction of these chemicals have been evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.  Chemicals are pervasive in every aspect of life.  The report says they are used in agriculture, electronics and mining.  They are found in products such as paints, adhesives, textiles and toys for children.

The report says death and disability rates from the unsafe use of chemical products are high.  For example, it notes poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to over 1 million deaths annually.

Besides the health costs, UNEP’S director of the Division for Technology, Industry and Economics, Sylvie Lemmet, says the unsound management of chemicals has very high economic costs.

“If you look at the estimated cost of poisoning from pesticide in sub-Saharan Africa, only the injury and the loss of working time…is estimated to be 6.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2009," said Lemmet. "This is higher than the total ODA [Overseas Development Aid] that is going to the health sector in that same area…So, the argument is there to say…the cost in a way of inaction is so high than preventing these costs makes an economic benefit.”   

UNEP reports global chemical sales are set to increase by around 3 percent a year until 2050.  It says production is quickly shifting from developed to developing countries.  The report says chemical production is set to increase by 40 percent in Africa and the Middle East between 2012 and 2020 and Latin America is expected to see a 33 percent rise.  

The report cites as key environmental concerns pesticide and fertilizer contamination of rivers and lakes, heavy metal pollution associated with cement and textile production, and dioxin contamination from mining.

It also stresses the dangers of persistent organic pollutants, which can be transported over long distances in the air and are later deposited onto land and water resources.  As these chemicals accumulate in organisms, they move up the food chain.  Scientists say they are responsible for the near extinction of some species.

The World Health Organization estimates more than 25 percent of the global burden of disease is linked to environmental factors.  The director of WHO’s Department of Public Health and the Environment, Maria Neira, says 4.9 million deaths from these diseases are attributable to environmental exposure of selected chemicals.  

“We have data available proving that. I think that is an enormous figure: 4.9 million deaths that could be avoided if we have better management in reducing exposure to those chemicals," said Neira.  "Obviously, this figure is an underestimation.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  We know that data is only available on a very small number of chemicals.  If we go for more that would probably give us a more dramatic figure.”  

Authors of the U.N. report say preventing harm is cheaper than fixing it.  They say poor management of chemicals creates health and environmental safety hazards.  It also incurs multi-billion-dollar costs worldwide.

Among its recommendations, the report urges chemical producers, manufacturers and importers to play an active role in working with governments to develop safety policies.  It urges governments in developing and emerging countries to establish policies that focus on preventing risks and promoting safer alternatives, rather than only rectifying hazards.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a group that represents U.S. chemical companies, says it shares UNEP's concern about the impact of chemicals on human health. It says the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), of which it is a member, has conducted more than 40 workshops with businesses in developing countries to enhance their management of chemicals in the past four years.

The U.S. industry group says the ICCA has partnered with UNEP to improve the safety of chemical transport and warehousing in Africa and has worked with other partners in Ukraine and Mozambique to train personnel in preventing human exposure from past chemical contamination.

The ACC says it also has concerns about what it calls "serious shortcomings" in the UNEP study. It says there are "significant" data gaps that prevent the report from being able to distinguish the health impacts of chemicals from those of other environmental factors, resulting in "unreliable conclusions."

Another international business group, the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, says the UNEP report "does not capture all that chemical companies are doing." It says the global industry has greater expertise and better environmental, health and safety practices than it has had in the past.

SOCMA says its participating companies share best practices and learn from other businesses about how to implement the most effective programs, allowing them to continuously improve their programs. It also says nations such as Canada have developed chemical management plans that are "transparent" and "effectively involve" stakeholders.

UNEP's Global Chemicals Outlook, the first comprehensive assessment of its kind, will be reviewed during the third session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management in Nairobi later this month.

The original version of this story was presented without representation from both sides. This updated version reflects another viewpoint.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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