Chemicals: better protection of environment and health

Steady increase of chemicals use worldwide

Bauer brings out pesticides in his fieldClick to enlarge
Some nine kilogrammes of plant protection products are spread one hectare of farmland every year
Source: Penny Williams /

The German Environment Agency (UBA) is calling for the sustainable use of chemicals. At its Sustainability Transformation Conference held on 30.11.2021, UBA identified six key aspects of chemicals management that protects human health and the environment. These include giving preference to the use of non-harmful substances and achieving climate neutrality of chemicals throughout their life cycle. Prescient Dirk Messner of UBA said: "We urgently need to rethink our use of chemicals so we can curb chemical pollution, the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis worldwide. One way forward could be to find a measure for chemicals use that provides guard rails to promote sustainability. Our six proposals are a step in this direction. In this way, we can find a balance between the welfare of society on the one hand and the limits of the Earth system on the other.”

The United Nations estimates there are 40,000 to 60,000 chemicals in circulation on the global market. Chemical sales are expected to double by 2030. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that certain chemicals caused at least two million people worldwide in 2019. There continues to be a high level of exposure to harmful chemicals in Germany, too: according to UBA’s Human Biomonitoring, one in five children have concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid in their blood that are above the safety threshold.

The United Nations recently launched a Decade for Action to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals can still be achieved. UBA believes the goals can only be achieved if chemical production and use are sustainable. This would mean minimising the risks for environment and health in all areas of need and maximising opportunities for society. A new discussion process launched by UBA encourages a more detailed outline of the pathway to reaching these aims. It includes the following considerations to be taken into account:

  1. Preference should always be given to substances cause no harm to health and the environment.
  2. Hazardous substances may only be used if absolutely in the interest of society and sustainable development and there are no alternatives. One example is considering the use of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, which include perfluorooctanoic acid. Discussions at European level are in progress about applications where these substances are still absolutely essential.
  3. The circular economy requires pollutant-free material flows. This means that the chemicals contained in the products must be known throughout the entire chain, they must be known to be harmless and raw materials are to be provided in a sustainable way. Substances of concern that are nevertheless contained in materials must be carefully managed or discharged in safe cycles as required. Any measures must take into account the resulting energy requirements.
  4. Society must find a sustainable measure for its demand for chemicals if sustainable energy and resource consumption are to be achieved at all. Substituting hazardous substances with other substances is not enough. Since chemicals are part of our living environment and will also be needed in many ways in the future for sustainable solutions, the use of all synthetic chemicals must always be questioned and possible impacts on climate and biodiversity must be taken into account.
  5. Chemicals must achieve climate neutrality throughout their life cycle. The chemical industry offers innovative solutions for generating energy from renewable sources and using non-fossil feedstocks in the future, as well as ways to become more energy efficient. Nevertheless, its high energy consumption and global growth make it a significant CO₂ emitter and thus a driver of climate change.
  6. Clear criteria and indicators can make it visible to both industry and consumers the extent to which a product contributes to the specified sustainability aspects. These indicators are essential for weighing up opportunities and risks.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved if all these aspects are taken into consideration in future chemicals management.

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