According to the UN Human Rights Commission, “living in a pollution-free world is a basic human right” and the “fundamental right to life is threatened by exposures to toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, and contaminated drinking water.” The rise in incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, degenerative diseases and mental health problems is linked to air, water and food contamination.
About 80,000 new synthetic chemicals have been made, used and released into the environment since World War II. An estimated 1,500 chemicals are introduced each year, many of which can pollute our air, soil and water.
The majority of pesticides and industrial chemicals we use have not been adequately tested for their impact on human health and the environment. There is concern about endocrine disruption, changes to genes, and the effects of chemical mixtures. Most of the 38,000 chemicals listed for use in Australia have not been assessed by our national regulators.
Our exposure to hazardous chemicals
Australians are exposed to hazardous chemicals through residues in food and water, indoor and outdoor air, contaminated house dust and personal and household products.
Of particular concern are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are volatile and capable of travelling vast distances through air and water. They include industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides such as dieldrin, dioxins and chemicals in consumer products. While some POPs are banned or restricted, it is estimated that more than 4,000 are still in use.
Toxic chemicals in food, toys and everyday products
Many toxic chemicals are in consumer products. Some, despite being capable of causing cancer (e.g. naphthalene) or reproductive harm (ethylene glycol), are not required to be labeled, and consumers remain unaware of the dangers.
Harmful chemicals can be found in plastic products, including toys. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which has been shown to migrate into food from some food wraps during storage, has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Hazardous industrial chemicals
Hazardous chemicals are also found in agricultural pesticides and waste from industry and households, including rapidly growing e-waste. High amounts of particulate pollution come from the drilling and blasting of coal mines and flaring in gas and oil exploration.
Climate change – amplifying the risk
Climate change is amplifying the risks of toxics in the environment. Higher temperatures are increasing emissions and releases of chemicals. There is already evidence of increased release of harmful substances from glacial and permafrost melts. Temperature has also been shown to affect the toxicity of chemicals.
Solutions must be based on the four pillars of chemicals reform:
- the right to know
- no data – no market
- the precautionary principle
- the substitution principle.
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