The threat to life and health posed by industrial chemicals

VOA reports: 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 [UNEP] 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.

The GCO report states: Despite ubiquitous exposure to chemicals in both developed and developing nations, little is known about the total disease burden attributable to chemicals. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that globally, 4.9 million deaths (8.3% of total) and 86 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) (5.7% of total) were attributable to environmental exposure and management of selected chemicals in 2004 for which data were available. This figure includes indoor smoke from solid fuel use, outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, with 2.0, 1.2 and 0.6 million deaths/year. These are followed by occupational particulates, chemicals involved in acute poisonings, and pesticides involved in self-poisonings, with 375,000, 240,000 and 186,000 deaths/year respectively.

Estimates for selected chemicals (including pesticides) involved in unintentional acute and occupational poisonings, a limited number of occupational carcinogens and particulates and lead, correspond to a total of 964,000 deaths and 20,986,153 DALYs, corresponding to 1.6% of the total deaths and 1.4% of the total burden of disease worldwide. To compare, among the global top ten leading causes of death in 2004, HIV/AIDS caused 2 million deaths, tuberculosis caused 1.5 million deaths, road traffic accidents caused 1.27 million deaths, and malaria caused 0.9 million deaths (WHO, 2008).

This global estimate is an underestimate of the real burden attributable to chemicals. Only a small number of chemicals were included in the WHO analysis due to limitations in data availability. Critical chemicals not incorporated in the analysis due to data gaps include mercury, dioxins, organic chlorinated solvents, PCBs, and chronic pesticide exposures as well as health impacts from exposure to local toxic waste sites.

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