U.N. cites millions of deaths due to misuse of chemicals

The United Nations is calling for urgent action to reduce the growing health and environmental hazards from exposure to chemical substances. A new study, “Global Chemicals Outlook,” by the U.N. Environment Program finds sound management of chemicals could save millions of lives and provide an economic bonanza to nations worldwide.

The report presents a stark view of a world that is overwhelmed by increased volumes of chemicals. The most frightening aspect of this scenario is that very little is known about the estimated 143,000 chemicals being produced.

The U.N. Environment Program says only a fraction of these chemicals have been evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment. Chemicals are pervasive in every aspect of life. The report says they are used in agriculture, electronics and mining. They are found in products such as paints, adhesives, textiles and toys for children.

The report says death and disability rates from the unsafe use of chemical products are high. For example, it notes that poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to more than 1 million deaths annually.

Besides the health costs, Sylvie Lemmet, said the unsound management of chemicals has very high economic costs. She is the director of the program’s Division for Technology, Industry and Economics.

“If you look at the estimated cost of poisoning from pesticide in sub-Saharan Africa, only the injury and the loss of working time…is estimated to be 6.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2009,” said Ms. Lemmet.

The program reports global chemical sales are set to increase by around 3 percent a year until 2050. It says production is quickly shifting from developed to developing countries. The report says chemical production is set to increase by 40 percent in Africa and the Middle East between 2012 and 2020 and Latin America is expected to see a 33-percent rise.

The report cites as key environmental concerns pesticide and fertilizer contamination of rivers and lakes, heavy-metal pollution associated with cement and textile production, and dioxin contamination from mining. It also stresses the dangers of persistent organic pollutants, which can be transported over long distances in the air, and are later deposited onto land and water resources. As these chemicals accumulate in organisms, they move up the food chain. Scientists say they are responsible for the near extinction of some species.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 25 percent of the global burden of disease is linked to environmental factors. The director of the organization’s Department of Public Health and the Environment, Maria Neira, said 4.9 million deaths from these diseases are attributable to environmental exposure of selected chemicals.

“We have data available proving that. I think that is an enormous figure – 4.9 million deaths that could be avoided if we have better management in reducing exposure to those chemicals,” said Ms. Neira. “Obviously, this figure is an underestimation. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that data is only available on a very small number of chemicals. If we go for more that would probably give us a more dramatic figure.”

Authors of the report say preventing harm is cheaper than fixing it. They say poor management of chemicals creates health and environmental safety hazards. It also incurs multi-billion-dollar costs worldwide.

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