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  1. Environment
19 January 2022

Chemical pollution threatens life on Earth. What are the solutions?

The amount of chemical pollution in the world is dangerous for human health and nature, said scientists this week. Economics and policies should reflect this reality.

By Philippa Nuttall

After belching out enough emissions to change the climate and cause the sixth mass extinction, humans have now allowed chemical pollution to spiral out of control. The era of the Anthropocene is well and truly upon us.

These are the dismal findings of research published on 18 January. It underlines, say campaigners, the importance of Britain not weakening regulations that govern hazardous chemicals post-Brexit. 

In 2009, researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre – a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – came up with the concept of “planetary boundaries”. The idea was to specify biophysical conditions that humans needed to thrive, such as healthy nature and climate, and which could inform policymaking. For the first time, scientists have concluded that the planetary boundary for chemical pollution has been breached, putting humanity in danger by threatening the biological and physical processes that underpin life.

There are now an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. “There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950,” said the co-author of the research, Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “This is projected to triple again by 2050.”

Plastic production alone increased 79 per cent between 2000 and 2015, and is forecast to continue to grow until 2050. “Plastics are an important vector of chemicals, with around 10,000 used for their production. Many are hazardous or their toxicity is unknown,” said Vito Buonsante, a health and environment lecturer and adviser to the International Pollutants Elimination Network.

Likewise, despite dire warnings about the impact of synthetic pesticides on nature by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring back in 1962, global pesticide use almost doubled between 1990 and 2018, and the increase is also predicted to continue.

“The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity,” said Villarrubia-Gómez.

Chemicals are now found in every corner of the planet. Pesticide residues have been found in polar bears. Melting ice sheets and glaciers are thought to be releasing pesticide residues that have been accumulating since the 1940s. The notorious insecticide DDT was banned in the US in 1972, but in 2019 low levels of the chemicals were found in the blood of pregnant American women.

The EU has the most stringent chemicals laws in the world since Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) was introduced in 2007. The regulation aims to ensure goods sold in the EU are safe. However, the burden of proof remains with companies, dossiers submitted by industry to the European Chemicals Agency are often incomplete, and inspections frequently find products containing hazardous substances.

Given the number of chemicals, Bethanie Carney Almroth, co-author of the research and associate professor at University of Gothenburg, said there just isn’t enough data to prove whether substances are hazardous or not. “We assume that things on the market are safe, but we can’t say that,” she commented. The World Health Organisation linked two million deaths globally to chemical exposure in 2019.

Almroth, like others, believes the sheer amount of chemicals needs to be reduced. Stricter policies could help. Work is ongoing to tighten up Reach, which will likely influence legislation in other regions. NGOs from around the world are calling for a treaty “to address the global plastic pollution crisis”. And campaigners want up-to-date thinking to be better reflected in policy decisions. 

“Despite continuing to be touted by the agrochemical industry, the myth that we cannot feed the world without pesticides has long been discredited,” said Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at Pesticides Action Network UK. “The dominant narrative is now doing a complete U-turn. Evidence shows that recent declines in pollinator numbers, which are partly attributed to the overuse of pesticides, pose a much larger and more existential threat to the future of food production.”  

But policy alone won’t help humanity live within planetary boundaries, said Buonsante. Market incentives are also needed to change the “chemicals economy”, he argued.

“Capping production is incredibly complicated from a legal and a policy perspective,” said Buonsante. “You cannot change the economy based on some moral agreement or some criticism of corporates. We need to price in externalities.” For him, this means “taking a more holistic approach, looking at the entire system of petrochemicals” and highlighting the close links between the production of chemicals and climate action. Fossil fuels are the basis of most plastics and chemicals, and their production is highly energy-intensive.  

“Treaties are important to put the spotlight on the urgency of a problem, but we also need market incentives,” said Buonsante. “If it is cheaper to buy food packed in plastic than to go to the farmers’ market, people will buy food wrapped in plastic. We need regulation and economic instruments.”

Post-Brexit, the UK is no longer subject to Reach, and campaigners are concerned that economic growth, rather than the protection of people or the environment, is to be prioritised.

This week’s report is a “powerful wake-up call from scientists that the chemical pollution that pervades the planet threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends,” said Michael Warhurst, executive director of Chem Trust, an NGO. “This is no time to be weakening rules regulating hazardous chemicals, when – as the scientists urge – stronger regulation is needed. Britain needs to keep step with the EU.”

A big part of Europe’s chemicals regulation is identifying substances of very high concern. At the end of last year, the UK government set out proposals for dealing with potential toxins, carcinogens and chemicals that persist for a long time in the environment. The plans would likely lead to a smaller number of chemicals being analysed for their hazardous impacts on human health and the environment, and potentially banned. While the EU identified ten substances in 2021 of being potentially a very high concern, the UK has chosen to list only four of them.

Exactly how the UK decides to react to warnings about planetary boundaries and health and nature risks related to chemicals remains to be seen. Britain last issued a chemical strategy in 1999. An update was due in 2018, but in January 2022, nothing was forthcoming. A final strategy is now expected towards the end of the year or the beginning of 2023.

[See also: What makes a good climate “nudge”?]

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