A couple of months ago, as part of my research for an article, I spoke to a young woman affected by a rather unique and misunderstand condition called ‘Multiple Chemical Sensitivity’. Also known as environmental illness or chemical injury or chemical sensitivity, MCS is defined as a condition where individuals have become neurologically sensitized to chemicals in the environment, including fragrances, car exhaust, pesticides, cleaning products, and building materials. Although there is debate in the medical community about its existence, the notion that the toxic chemical soup mixture that we expose ourselves to on a daily basis doesn’t have any impact seems outright illogical. Indeed, a recent study by the UN states that we are living in a world overwhelmed with chemicalsand that better management of chemicals could save millions of lives.
The study released in early September by the U.N Environment Program states that urgent action is needed to reduce the growing health and environmental hazards we face due to exposure to chemical substances. There is an estimated 143,000 chemicals being produced that we know very little about and the UN states that only a fraction of these chemicals are evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.
Unsurprisingly, the rate of death and disability due to the use of unsafe chemicals is high. The report reveals that poisoning from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, killing over 1 million people annually. The director of WHO’s Department of Public Health and the Environment, Maria Neira, argued that the figure was closer to 4.9 million deaths.
“I think that is an enormous figure: 4.9 million deaths that could be avoided if we have better management in reducing exposure to those chemicals,” Neira told VOA news.“Obviously, this figure is an underestimation. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that data is only available on a very small number of chemicals. If we go for more that would probably give us a more dramatic figure.”
Global chemical sales are also set to increase by around 3 percent a year until 2050 and the UN says production is quickly shifting from developed to developing countries. This is not good news. The report says chemical production is set to increase by 40 percent in Africa and the Middle East between 2012 and 2020. I guess this is an issue (or should I say problem) we’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the near future.
In a bid to encourage countries to take an active role in managing dangerous chemicals, the report argues that it’s cheaper to protect workers than it is to deal with the aftermath of dangerous exposure to chemicals. The UNEP’S director of the Division for Technology, Industry and Economics, Sylvie Lemmet argues in VOA News: “The estimated cost of poisoning from pesticide in sub-Saharan Africa…is estimated to be 6.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2009. This is higher than the total ODA [Overseas Development Aid] that is going to the health sector in that same area…preventing these costs makes an economic benefit.”