Lead Authors: Nelson Manda, Jennifer Mohamed-Katerere

“The goal of balancing the economic and social benefits of chemicals with their health and environmental risks is easy to understand and agree to. But how to achieve this balance is a highly complex problem – or rather, it requires understanding and solving many complex problems. Managing the risks of chemicals is interconnected with many other issues, including wastes and pollution, global warming, resource depletion, agriculture, biotechnology, loss of biodiversity, poverty and women’s rights.”

UNEP 2004a


The use of chemicals has brought immense benefits to humankind, and at the same time it has had negative impacts on human health and safety, particularly for the poorest and youngest people, on the integrity of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and on air and water quality. The unsound management and use of chemicals poses threats to human well-being at many levels: it threatens the sustainability of the environment which provides essential goods-and-services for livelihoods, it undermines human health, it threatens physical security, and it reduces the ability of communities to care for themselves and, especially, for children.

Chemicals present both known and unknown risks. Some chemicals, including heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), present known risks. Lead and mercury, for example, have serious and irreversible impacts on the mental development of children. Over the past half-century there has been an accelerated release of artificial chemicals into the environment, many of which are long-lived and transformed into by-products whose behaviours, synergies and impacts are not well-known (MA 2006). New research indicates that many chemicals widely in use, including in household and personal care products, that are assumed to be safe by consumers and downstream users, pose significant threats to people and biodiversity (WWF 2004b). As chemical production increases globally, wildlife contamination has become even more pervasive, and troubling health threats are ever more apparent (WWF 2004a). Establishing and implementing systems for the sound management of chemicals must be a priority for Africa. A key challenge is how to account for this aspect of uncertainty.

Chemical substances, and their derivatives, are widely used in many development and economic sectors including industry, agriculture, mining, water purification, public health – particularly disease eradication – and infrastructure development. However, production, storage, transportation, and removal of these substances can pose risks to people and the environment. The challenge facing Africa is how to harness the benefits of chemicals, while minimizing the costs. While Africa has made significant progress in developing a regional framework for the management of chemicals throughout their life cycle – production, transportation, storage, use and disposal – much still needs to be done in integrating this approach into national and sub-regional systems for implementation.

Although Africa is currently neither a major consumer nor producer of chemicals in global terms, the level of risk faced by poor countries is disproportionately higher than in those with sufficient resources to effectively manage and monitor chemical use. Additionally, many poor people have weakened immune systems, making them more vulnerable to chemical-related illness; their well-being may be further compromised by lack of access to information about the impact of chemicals, and their living conditions and work places may leave them exposed to the hazards of toxic chemicals (UNEP 2006). With economic growth, Africa is likely to grow as both a producer and consumer of chemical products, increasing the importance of this issue. There is also a trend to relocate chemical production away from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries to developing countries (OECD 2001).