UN says chemicals damaging health

2012-09-06 18:02


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New York - The potential cost of pesticide-related illnesses in sub-Saharan African between 2005 and 2020 could reach $90bn, according to a UN report released on Wednesday highlighting the growing health and environmental hazards from chemicals.

It said the estimated cost of pesticide poisoning exceeds the total amount of international aid for basic health services for the region, excluding HIV/Aids.

The report by the UN Environment Programme warned that the increasing production of chemicals, especially in emerging economies where there are weaker safeguards, is damaging the environment and increasing health costs.

The program urged stepped up action by governments and industry to meet a target set by the world's nations in 2002 to produce and use chemicals by 2020 in ways that minimize adverse effects on human health in the environment.

Rachel Massey of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, one of the report's authors, told a news conference launching the report that chemical production is growing worldwide, but the growth is most rapid in emerging economies.

From 2012-2020, she said, chemical production in North America and Europe is expected to grow by about 25% compared with growth of about 50% in the Asia-Pacific region, about 40% in Africa and the Middle East, and about 33% in Latin America.

"Studies, projecting trends to 2050, forecast that global chemical sales will grow about 3% per year to 2050," the report said.

Unep said chemicals have become so important to daily life in today's world that the value of their output has grown to $4.12 trillion, compared to $171bn in 1970.

But of the more than 140 000 chemicals estimated to be on the market today, Unep said only a fraction have been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on health and the environment.

Industrial and agricultural chemicals

Massey said the report looked at benzene, a well-known carcinogen associated with leukemia and other diseases, whose use skyrocketed in Asia over the past two decades. It found that consumption of benzene grew 800% in China from 1990-2008 compared with 13% in North America, she said.

In richer countries, Unep said, the data indicated that inorganic chemicals including amonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid are routinely among the air pollutants released in the highest quantities.

The Global Chemicals Outlook reported that poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to over one million deaths annually.

The report collected scientific, technical and socio-economic data for the first time on the global production, trade, use and disposal of chemicals, their health effects, and the economic implications.

Unep's Executive Director Achim Steiner said the world is increasingly dependent on chemical products, from fertilizers and petrochemicals to electronics and plastics, for economic development but he said "the gains that chemicals can provide must not come at the expense of human health and the environment."

"Pollution and disease related to the unsustainable use, production and disposal of chemicals can, in fact, hinder progress towards key development targets by affecting water supplies, food security, well-being or worker productivity," Steiner said in a statement.

"Reducing hazards and improving chemicals management - at all stages of the supply chain - is, thus, an essential component of the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and inclusive green economy," he said.

Read more on:    unep  |  environment  |  health

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