Humanity is at a crossroads. Either we strengthen global efforts for a just transition to environmentally sustainable societies, or we veer from one tipping point to the next, towards an abyss which might bring the end of civilization.
The transition requires a combination of incentives and legislation to support what is good and to halt what is bad. We also need to balance economic, social and environmental interests. There can be no development when people are ill from pollutants, when the environment is destroyed, or when half the world’s people do not have equal rights.
The UN’s proposed SDGs form a key political framework for all countries to guide such a transition. They present a comprehensive agenda: universal, transformative, ambitious, integrated and addressing emerging issues, not just those of the past. They include cross-cutting targets which address challenges such as gender equality and minimizing exposure to chemicals. And they set targets for social protection floors and universal access to public services to reduce women’s burden of domestic and unpaid care work, essential for moving from the current exploitative economic model to an equitable and environmentally sustainable one.
Women have long served as buffers in times of economic crisis and austerity, taking on more and more unpaid tasks at home and doing double job shifts to make a living. In most countries, women often work 30 to 40 per cent more hours than men, in some, twice as many. And they are responsible for 80 per cent of subsistence farming in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The rapid increase of economic inequality—with just 1 per cent of the world’s people owning as much as the other 99 per cent—can be changed. It is just a matter of political will. Corporations can be taxed differently, applying ecological and social criteria. And those who do not want to become socially responsible must be prevented from influencing politicians with their money. In 2013, the lobbies of the pharmaceutical and medical industries and the financial sector spent more than €1 billion to lobby policymakers in Washington and Brussels.
When the European Commission developed its comprehensive chemicals legislation—based on the commitment to substitute all hazardous chemicals in consumer products initiated at the 2002 Johannesburg World Sustainable Development Summit—the American chemicals industry disclosed it was spending over €50 million to try and stop it. A number of international chemical companies continue to invest in dubious lobbying activities—such as opposing transparent consumer information—instead of becoming socially and environmentally responsible. We need global standards for the transparency and accountability of corporations and independence of science.
The SDGs include some quite strong environmental goals. That is good, but it would have been even better if they had a goal on “zero hazardous chemicals” or “a healthy environment for all”. A toxin-free environment for everybody is essential to the health and well-being of people and the planet. Everyone should have the right to be born into surroundings where they are not exposed to hazardous chemicals, especially in their earliest days.
Research increasingly shows that common chemicals in food and consumer products can be linked to diseases and disorders like cancer, asthma, diabetes, infertility, and neurological problems. All of these are growing strongly, presenting not just a tragedy for those affected, but increasing costs to society, estimated soon to reach tens of billions of euros in Europe alone. Growing numbers of chemicals identified as potential “hormone disrupters” (endocrine disrupting chemicals) can interfere with the human endocrine system and are found in baby toys, pesticide residues in food, biocides used in homes, plastic boots and food packaging, cosmetics, water bottles, etc., usually without full disclosure or labelling of ingredients.
Many chemicals, including endocrine disrupting ones, are linked to increasing cancer levels: the incidence of breast cancer, for example, has increased by up to 50 per cent over the last 20 years, which cannot be explained by genetic and lifestyle factors alone. Breast cancer is essentially a women’s disease (men have a 100 times lower risk). It is unacceptable that one in eight American women now risks developing the cancer. And it is also strongly increasing in developing countries, possibly through growing use, for example, of hazardous pesticides. Some scientific studies have also associated the use of garden pesticides with an approximate 40 per cent increased risk. In total, more than 200 chemicals have been associated with an increased incidence of breast tumours, and research on twins has found 67 per cent of breast cancers to be linked to environmental causes, compared to just 27 per cent to inherited risks. Increasing evidence links breast cancer risk and environmental factors.
Many hazardous substances are unregulated—or only partly regulated—despite more than 20 years of scientific evidence demonstrating that we should be very worried about emerging risks such as endocrine disrupters, manufactured nanoparticles, and neurotoxins found, for example, in neonicotinoid pesticides. Indeed, most countries have not even yet regulated such old, well-known risks as lead in paint, asbestos in homes and schools, and mercury used in small-scale gold mining.
Health threats from hazardous chemicals are particularly serious in developing and transition countries, which need stronger legislation, control and enforcement, and often have insufficient public budgets. Every year that governments fail to apply the precautionary principle sees another generation of children born into a contaminated environment with reduced potential for a healthy life. Many very persistent chemicals are passed from mother to child and possibly to the next generation(s). Even when not persistent, endocrine disruptors can also have such epigenetic effects, affecting those as yet unborn.
UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook (GCO) estimates that some 900,000 people die from exposure to hazardous chemicals every year. Many are exposed in the workplace, but—as health effects often set in after a latency period of several years—employers are frequently let off the hook, and victims and their families do not get justice.
The GCO estimates, too, that the cost of pesticide poisoning in sub-Saharan Africa now exceeds the total annual overseas aid that the region receives for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS.
In some countries, reports the Pesticide Action Network, women make up at least 85 per cent of those applying pesticides on commercial farms and plantations, often working whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. The chemicals sector must urgently stop opposing globally binding agreements to phase out and substitute hazardous substances of concern.
The costs of cleaning up and supporting victims should not be shouldered by taxpayers. If the global chemical industry paid a tiny 0.1 per cent tax on its US$3 trillion turnover each year, more than US$3 billion would be available annually for financing chemical regulation and clean-up and related health costs and innovation for safe substances. Innovative financing mechanisms are already being discussed internationally, but should be given greater urgency.
UNEP and WHO should launch a global programme on solutions, awareness and policy guidance on gender and chemicals and on specific women’s and children’s diseases linked to hazardous substances. Denmark already informs expectant parents about the risks of hazardous chemicals to their children. Women International for a Common Future carries out its “Nesting” campaign in 10 countries for the same purpose.
The SDGs, when implemented with the full participation of civil society, can achieve a transformation to equality and living within planetary boundaries. Indigenous peoples have taught us that when we plan actions, we need to understand their impact on the seventh generation to come. The SDGs should help us leave our seventh-generation grandchildren a world in which they can live with dignity and well-being. ▲