Detoxifying Development

24 June 2014, By Kerstin Stendahl, Executive Secretary a.i., Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and Fatoumata Keita-Ouane, Head, Chemicals Branch, UNEP

Modern life places many demands on the products and processes we use every day. Who doesn’t like that the mobile phones are now light and sleek, that dishes and cutlery made of plastic are strong and durable, or that our clothes repel raindrops when we get caught in a sudden downpour? Chemicals make these desirable properties possible. Technological advances and know-how driving today’s economic development owe much to chemicals. They are woven into our lives, and are used or produced in almost every industry and societal sector, including health, energy, transport, agriculture, construction, textile, and consumer products.

While chemicals contribute significantly to our well-being, they can also pose a threat to human health, the environment and sustainable development if they are not managed well. Their potentially adverse impacts, combined with the limited capacity in many countries to deal with these impacts, make the sound management of chemicals and wastes a key issue that cuts across many areas of our lives.

Health and population growth

Chemical releases to the environment are the major contributor to environmental pollution that contaminates people and harms their health. The statistics are grim. 4.9 million deaths were attributable to environmental exposure to chemicals in 2004. This disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries where nearly 80% of deaths from non-communicable diseases – some 29 million each year – occur.

Sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition

Agriculture is currently the largest user of pesticides and therefore also an important source of risk for human health and the environment. Pesticides can turn up where they are not wanted. More than 90 per cent of sampled water and fish were found to be contaminated by multiple pesticides. About 3 per cent of exposed agricultural workers suffer from an episode of pesticide poisoning every year.

Poverty eradication, building shared prosperity and promoting equality

Chemicals and wastes do not harm all communities equally. The poor are the most vulnerable of being exposed to hazardous substances. In urban settings, the poor often reside in areas close to landfills, incinerators, hazardous or other wastes dumping sites, or other industrial zones/polluting activities. Children of the poor are more likely to be affected by lead exposure, since they are more likely to be malnourished and a diet low in iron and calcium allows more lead to be absorbed by the body. The safety of people engaged in economic activities where chemical exposures are significant, such as in the recycling of e-waste, agriculture, small-scale and artisanal mining, lead acid battery recycling, chemicals manufacturing, tanneries, needs to be ensured.

So what do we do?

Effective implementation of the existing international, regional and national legal and policy regimes addressing chemicals and wastes supports sustainable development, and help us realize the future sustainable development goals. By striving for policy coherence and efficiency at the national level, and through improved use of resources and greater coordination among the key stakeholders for the implementation of the national legal framework, we can make strides towards achieving sustainable development.

The message is clear: It is time we detoxify development to make it sustainable!

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