Toxic chemicals threaten current and future generations. To protect them, we must change course by shifting our chemical practices to a more sustainable model.
Global data indicates rapidly growing pressure on the environment from toxic chemicals and wastes. The shift of chemical production to developing and transition countries has been accompanied by an increase in the use of pesticides, products and processes containing hazardous chemicals – including those that disrupt reproduction, cause birth defects and persist in the environment and human bodies causing harm.
Weak national legislation, sparse or non-existent information about the environmental and health effects of toxic chemicals, lack of funding and poor technological and human resources in developing and transition economies all make these countries vulnerable to and disproportionally affected by toxic hazards.
While developed countries strengthen their environmental and health legislation, developing and transition countries still struggle with problems that are not considered an issue in the developed world any more. An example is lead in paint, which still poses a threat to children in most developing economies. Many still struggle with stockpiles of obsolete and banned pesticides that pollute their soil, water and food, threatening the health of people and wildlife. And they have been turned into dumping grounds for newer hazardous pesticides already banned in the developed world but made by its companies and aggressively marketed to developing countries.
Besides already known chemicals, thousands of new ones are introduced to the market every year. Most are not regulated by existing chemical conventions or by national legislation. However, we lack information about these chemicals as well as protective regulation. Many of them potentially cause comparable harm to that from such known substances as mercury or persistent organic pollutants. Disclosing chemicals used in production and in products should be a global standard so as to minimize the risks of exposure that causes suffering and additional burdens on countries' economic development and health systems.
We are witnessing an epidemic burden of disease and disability associated with exposure in the womb to toxic chemicals that cause irreversible changes in the current generation and will impact the life of generations to come. Children are born “pre-polluted” with dozens, if not hundreds, of hazardous chemicals in their tiny bodies. Many chemicals harm pregnant women and children's developing brains with devastating lifelong and inter-generational consequences.
According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure alone causes severe mental disabilities in 600,000 children annually. Subsistence gold miners, women and their children inhale mercury vapour as they work to make a living. Children across the world play with toys made of toxic plastics, lead and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Moreover, some countries still depend on pesticides that can harm children’s brains and lead to cancer.
Governments and industry should make a serious step towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by preventing children from being exposed to pollution and toxic chemicals, including substances whose risks are not well understood. Initial steps along this path include replacing hazardous chemical components in products and processes with safer substitutes and banning goods containing hazardous materials – including ingredients in household products, paints and long-shelf-life food.
In some cases, it will be necessary to abandon completely some chemicals or technologies, like incinerating hazardous and unsegregated waste, including e-waste and plastic. Agricultural knowledge, science and technology should not pose health and environmental threats, but should improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate sustainable development that is equitable as well as environmentally, socially and economically viable.
Chemical safety is implicit in many, if not all the Sustainable Development Goals, but it is usually sidelined and invisible. Now is the time to act on chemical pollution so that sustainable development can become a reality.
Moving to a circular economy is important for sustainability, but recycling materials that contain toxic chemicals merely contaminates new products and continues exposure. There is data showing that toxic chemicals from e-waste have been recycled into children’s toys – even in developed countries. Recycling materials containing toxic chemicals, including ones already banned by international treaties, poisons the supply chain and the circular economy and undermines the importance of recycling.
Dumping old technologies in developing and transition countries is all too common. Coordinated global actions need to restrict this harmful practice. There are many examples of transferring polluting, outmoded technologies to the developing world, including exporting pesticides and incinerators. Both create continued corporate profits at the expense of public health and the environment.
All technological developments should concentrate on reducing hazards, increasing resource efficiency and substituting non-chemical alternatives in industrial uses and in agriculture. The private sector must design safer, non-toxic chemicals from the start, promoting occupational health and safety and pollution prevention as well as providing itself with a clear, proactive role in reducing and eliminating the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of products.
Green chemistry principles for designing safer chemicals should become a core part of technological development so as to ensure safer products and processes (including non-chemical alternatives), cleaner production and the informed substitution of chemicals of concern. It is more efficient and less costly to start with a safe substance than to deal with a toxic one.
By integrating green chemistry principles into sustainable development priorities, we will achieve better chemicals management and non-toxic substitution at the design stage or “upstream”. This will lead to consumer and occupational safety, ensure environmental protection, and reduce chemical hazards. Indeed, advancing chemical safety is a vital component of sustainable development.