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UN Calls on Businesses to Reduce Chemical Risks, Avoid a Million Deaths

Poisoning from industrial and agricultural chemicals is among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to more than one million deaths a year, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, which calls for industry and government to take action to reduce risks to human health.

The risks are particularly high in emerging economies, where major industry from developed nations are increasingly producing, using and disposing of chemical products because of weaker safeguards and regulations there, UNEP said.

Global chemical sales are set to increase about three percent a year until 2050, UNEP said. Africa and the Middle East are expected to increase chemical production an average of 40 percent between 2012 and 2020, with Latin America to see a 33 percent rise.

Inorganic chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, and organic chemicals such as styrene and formaldehyde, are routinely among the air pollutants released in the highest quantities, the report said.

The release of UNEP’s Global Chemical Outlook follows renewed commitments by countries at the Rio+20 summit in June to prevent the illegal dumping of toxic wastes, develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in products and increase the recycling of water.

The UNEP said while governments and corporations have taken significant steps in developing national and international guidelines for managing chemicals, the pace of progress has been slow and the results are too often insufficient. Of the estimated 140,000-plus chemicals on the market today, only a fraction has been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.

Meanwhile, estimates suggest up to 75 percent of the e-waste generated in Europe and about 80 percent generated in the United States goes unaccounted for, the report said.

Emerging and developing countries are increasingly dependent on chemical products such as fertilizers, petrochemicals, electronics and plastics for their economic development, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said.

They’re also the ones most at risk. For example, the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa between 2005 and 2020 could reach $90 billion, UNEP said. That figure now exceeds the total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS.

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