Hazardous Chemicals: environmental impact and health effects

Hazardous chemicals expose us to health risks and have environmental implications. Particularly problematic are substances that end up in our environment: because they enter the food chain and soil, air and drinking water, they accumulate in our bodies. Our environment can be contaminated by hazardous chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals and pesticides. This can cause irreversible harm to the health of humans, fauna, flora, marine life and to the planet. Many toxic substances are found in food systems and the food we eat with potential harmful long-term effects. Our infographics below provide an overview about the most common medical implications of toxic chemicals, as well as the threats to the environment.

Our upcoming Future Policy Award: Nominate today

Hazardous chemicals cost lives – and money

There are enormous costs associated with unsound management of chemicals and waste. The World Health Organization estimated the burden of disease from exposure to selected chemicals at 1.6 million lives in 2016[1]. Costs from neurobehavioral deficits caused by certain exposure to chemicals were estimated to be more than 170 billion USD per year in the European Union alone.[2]

Children are particularly vulnerable

In recent years, the demand for protection of human rights, especially children and vulnerable populations from toxics is emerging.[3] Children are more vulnerable than adults due to ratio between body weight and levels of exposure and are also more sensitive to developmental growth spurts. There is a “silent pandemic” of disability and disease associated with exposure to toxics and pollution during childhood.[4] Toxic substances may interfere with the normal expression of genes, brain development, the function of hormones and other processes necessary for children to grow into healthy adults.[5]

Nowadays, the majority of children are born “pre-polluted” in the uterus with numerous contaminants that impact on several of their rights. Studies measured quite a number of toxic and hazardous substances in children before birth through their mother’s exposure and this increases after birth.[6] Although exposure can pose a risk to all, males and females have different susceptibility to chemical exposure and are differently affected with regard to physical conditions or reproductive health. In addition, children, adolescents and women working in the informal sector seldom receive trainings related to the chemicals. They are also more affected through the use of domestic personal items or household cleaning products.[7]

The chemicals industry is a growing market

Despite significant actions already taken for decades, the Global Chemicals Outlook II indicates that the global goal to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste will not be achieved by 2020. Whilst solutions exist, more ambitious worldwide actions by all stakeholders is urgently required. The size of the global chemical industry exceeded 5 trillion USD in 2017 and it is projected to double by 2030 [8]. Furthermore, consumption and production are rapidly increasing in emerging economies. Global supply chains, and the trade of chemicals and products, are becoming increasingly complex. This will increase global chemical releases, exposures, concentrations and adverse health and environmental impacts.

The management of chemicals is a key factor for sustainable development

Barrels of toxic chemicals in nature, pollution of the environment

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development incorporates chemicals and waste as key factors for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While chemicals and waste are cross-cutting issues across the 2030 Agenda, they are also clearly embedded into SDG 3 on good health and well-being, SDG 12 related to responsible consumption and production and SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation.

In moving forward, it is absolutely critical that the sound management of them is strengthened through inclusive, effective, inspiring and innovative laws and policies globally to protect future generations and contribute to the 2030 Agenda.

Our upcoming Future Policy Award highlights exemplary laws and policies that protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals. We in particular want to highlight laws, policies and legal frameworks that minimise the adverse effects of exposure to chemicals on human health, with a focus on children’s health, and the environment. Find our more about the award here.

Resources (Graphics)

[1] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II: Summary for policy makers, p. 2.

[2] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II: 7 environmental health and social effects of chemicals, p. 145.

[3] Pregnanct Woman icon © Goran Babic

[4] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II: 7.3 Human Health effects, pp. 150-154.

[5] GAHP, The Poisoned Poor: Toxic Chemical Exposures in Low- and Middle Income Countries, A Global Response, p. 18.

[6] WHO, Public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns.

[7] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II: 7 environmental health and social effects of chemicals, p. 145.

[8] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II: 7.4.1 vulnerable populations, p. 157.

[9] Teresa M. Attina & Leonardo Trasande, Economic Costs of Childhood Lead Exposure in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, p. 1

[10] UNEP, Global Chemicals Outlook II; 7.2 Effects on biota and biodiversity, pp. 147-149.

[11] UNEP, Meeting of the High Ambition Alliance on Chemicals and Waste at COP25

[12] WHO, IOMC: Chemicals and Waste management: essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), p. 1

Resources (Text)

[1] WHO, Public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns.

[2] Bellanger, M., Demeneix, B., Grandjean, P., Zoeller, R.T. and Trasande, L. (2015). Neurobehavioral deficits, diseases, and associated costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the European Union, in: Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(4), 1256-1266. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2014-4323


[4] OHCHR: Advanced Edited Version: (4) Chemicals, toxic substances and waste.

[5] Implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, in: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; General Assembly A/74/480, 7 October 2019, page 4.

[6] Environmental Working Group, „Body burden: the pollution in newborns“

[7] BODY BURDEN: THE POLLUTION IN NEWBORNS, The Pollution in Newborns, A benchmark investigation of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord bloold, Environmental Working Group, July 14, 2005, https://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns

[8] UNEP 2019