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ClientEarth Communications

4 May 2022

Pollution
Chemicals

What is chemical pollution?

Chemical pollution refers to the contamination of our environment with chemicals that are not found there naturally. But how big is the problem of chemical pollution and how does it affect our health and environment? We answer your questions.

Where do the chemicals come from?

Chemicals are everywhere - in the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we use. Most chemicals are man-made and they can fulfil a variety of functions. As such, they are used widely – from agriculture and industrial processes to producing medicine and household products. During manufacture, storage, transport and disposal, chemicals can leak into the surrounding environment.

How big is the problem of chemical pollution?

There are an estimated 100,000 synthetic chemicals on the EU market today and new chemicals are entering the market all the time. Authorities are unable to keep up with the increasing flow of chemicals and currently in the EU we have robust information and understanding of on just 500 of those 100,000 chemicals.

But understanding if a chemical is harmful is only half the battle. To understand the true impact of a chemical, it’s important to know how it’s used and where it’s found. But today, the chemical composition of materials and products as well as the emissions into the environment remain largely unknown.

What we do know is that man-made chemicals have been found in some of the most remote parts of our planet and recent research suggests the level of chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary” and we need urgent action to ensure a stable ecosystem.

How does chemical pollution affect our health?

Harmful chemicals can get into our bodies if we breathe them in, eat them, drink them or are absorbed through our skin. Some of the most harmful chemicals are “forever chemicals”, that get into our bodies and environment and do not break down, and “hormone disrupting chemicals’, that block, mimic or disrupt our natural hormones with dire consequences.

For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is an extremely harmful chemical that has been used in the manufacture of plastic products such as water bottles and food containers. It has been shown to cause cancer and heart disease as well as impact fertility.

How does chemical pollution affect our environment?

Chemical pollution can affect the delicate balance of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Mining, agriculture and waste disposal have caused substantial soil pollution. The presence of heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and lead can affect soil quality and reduce the number of micro-organisms that support soil fertility. The health of soil impacts biodiversity and the ability of populations to produce food.

The ocean suffers from a high level of plastic and other chemical pollution which has led to ‘dead zones’ – where the oxygen level in the water cannot support life. High or prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals has also impacted marine biodiversity

More to explore

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