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Earlier this week, the United Nations Environment Assembly released the second edition of its Global Chemicals Outlook. This report, which the Assembly mandated in 2016, aims to educate policymakers and manufacturers on the importance of properly managing chemicals and chemical waste as it pertains to global sustainability. The report addresses progress toward the Assembly’s benchmark of minimizing all chemical-related environmentally harmful effects by 2020, and according to the second edition, this goal will not be met in time.
If anything, the Global Chemicals Outlook suggests that the negative effects of chemicals — and our dependence on them — are stronger than ever. Through 2030, the number of sales of potentially-harmful synthetic chemicals might double from what it is right now — a massive change over a 12-year period. For perspective, twice as many synthetic chemicals are being manufactured now as there were at the turn of the century. Furthermore, rates of chemical production are expected to be sevenfold that of global population growth in the four decades spanning 1990 and 2030.
According to Achim Halpaap, who oversaw the 400-scientist team responsible for the Global Chemicals Outlook, major factors in this potential doubling include industrial needs in textiles, electronics, lead batteries, and construction materials. Halpaap also states that synthetic additives are more regularly being added to plastics to alter their qualities. In addition to the potential effects on public health, Halpaap notes that chemicals can damage coral reefs and reduce the population of important pollinators.
The risks of exposure to the chemicals addressed by the Global Chemicals Outlook come with potential effects that are deeply alarming. Although the effects can vary by chemical and the quantity of exposure, the study correlates exposure with cancer, birth defects, and chronic kidney problems. The World Health Organization, which played a pivotal role in the study, has suggested that chemical-related diseases affected nearly 2 million people across the globe in 2016.
Efforts have certainly been made to reduce humanity’s dependence on chemicals, but across the board, the many goals that have been set haven’t been met. In 2002, many governments across the world agreed to drastically cut the amount of chemical pollution emitted in their countries by 2020, but the Global Chemicals Outlook states plainly that no party involved has come at all close to meeting this goal.
Despite all the negative news coming from the report, there are some positive developments to note. The past many years have seen regulations emerge on harmful chemicals such as the formaldehyde found in some shampoos, phthalates in food packaging and beauty products, fire retardants in countless household goods, and microbeads in many kinds of toothpaste and other personal care products. Although these regulations don’t entirely eliminate the presence of these chemicals in everyday life — the Outlook cites an ordinary office chair as an everyday object containing fire retardants, rubber additives, chromium, and plastics — they do offer some short-term relief.
Overall, though, the Global Chemicals Outlook expresses dire concern about the future of humanity’s relationship with chemicals. Far more action than is being taken now will be needed to keep humanity — and all life on this planet — healthy and safe.