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UN report says urgent actions are needed to confront chemical pollution

  • The size of the global chemical industry exceeded $5 trillion in 2017 and it’s expected to double by 2030.

March 19,   2019. According to a United Nations (UN) report published on March 11, countries will not meet the internationally agreed goal of minimizing the adverse impacts of chemicals and wastes by 2020, which means urgent action is needed to reduce damage to human health and economies.

The second Global Chemicals Outlook, presented at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, concluded that the current production capacity of the chemical industry is 2.3 billion tonnes, valued at US$5 trillion annually and is projected to double by 2030.  

"We must work hard to reduce the demand for chemicals, increase their safety and change their composition so that they are more harmless to the environment and living things. Neither human or animal health nor the environment are going to stand an increase in the production and consumption of chemicals if we continue as if nothing were happening, that is, within the status quo," said Francisco Alpízar, a researcher of the Development, Economics and Environment Research Program (PIDEA, its Spanish acronym) of CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center), who participated in the report as lead author of one of its chapters. 

Despite commitments to maximize profits and minimize impacts from this industry, harmful chemicals continue to be released into the environment in large quantities. They are ubiquitous in air, water and soil, food and humans.

The report concludes that while international treaties and voluntary instruments have reduced the risks of some chemicals and wastes, progress has been uneven and gaps remain in implementation. For example, by 2018, more than 120 countries had not implemented the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.  

For its part, the World Health Organization estimated the disease burden of certain chemicals at 1.6 million lives in 2016. In addition, chemical pollution also threatens a range of ecosystem services.  

"The results of the second edition of the Global Chemical Outlook are very important for developing countries. They highlight the uneven implementation of chemicals and waste management and point to opportunities for enhanced knowledge sharing, capacity building and innovative financing," said David Kapindula, member of the report's steering committee from Zambia Environmental Management Agency.

Solutions exist, the second Global Perspective on Chemicals also found that governments are taking regulatory action on many chemicals. Pioneer companies are advancing standards beyond compliance and sustainable supply chain management. Consumers are pushing the demand for safer production and products.

Industry and entrepreneurs are developing green and sustainable chemical innovations. Scientists are filling data gaps. Universities are reforming chemistry teaching. Management approaches - from chemical hazard assessment to risk management and life cycle analysis - are advancing.

Opportunities exist for key influential actors such as investors, producers, retailers, academics and ministers to expand these initiatives. This would not only protect human health and the environment, but also bring economic benefits in the tens of billions of dollars annually.

The development of a future global platform for the rational management of chemicals and wastes beyond 2020 offers an opportunity. As highlighted in the report, this framework should bring together all relevant sectors and stakeholders and encourage collaboration and ambitious action.



UN Environment


More information:

Francisco Alpízar
Research Program in Development, Economics and Environment
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Written by:

Karla Salazar Leiva
Information Technology and Communication
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