Skip to content
Start of page content below the header
Blog Post
7 December 2023
Author: Jonna Wiklund

A call for much needed action on chemical pollution

Photo: Shad Arefin Sanchoy on Unsplash

On its 10th anniversary, Uppsala Health Summit 2023  focused on Chemical Pollution and One Health. Chemicals are used in many  everyday products and are also highly present in our food systems, whether it is through pesticides applied on farms or different forms of preservation and packaging in the food retail sector.

A recent analysis shows that over 350,000 chemicals and mixtures of chemicals are registered for production and use worldwide.  Chemicals have improved our living standards in many ways, but it is becoming clear that the wide use of harmful chemicals is having devastating effects on human and environmental health. In 2022, scientists concluded for the first time that the flood of pollutants has reached proportions that threaten the stability of the Earth system; the safe operating space or planetary boundary has been crossed.

The two-day Uppsala Health Summit gathered researchers, policymakers, private sector actors, and civil society representatives to discuss how to move from science to policy and action in addressing the issue of chemical pollution. Here are some key take-aways:

A One Health approach to chemical pollution and food systems

The One Health approach emphasizes the interdependency of the health of humans, animals, and the environment. It is increasingly used by the United Nations with the following operational definition ”One Health is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems. It recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and inter-dependent.”

Both Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu, Program Manager, European Center for Environment and Health, WHO Regional Office for Europe and Dr. Maria Cristina Zucca, Head, Pollution and Health Unit, Chemicals and Health Branch, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), stated that a One health approach is necessary to address chemical pollution. Dr. Zucca explained that this holistic view is needed since the sources of problems come from many different sectors, and to understand trade-offs and co-effects.

This is indeed the case when addressing chemicals in food systems. Risks associated with pesticide use were explored in one of the workshops of the summit titled Managing emerging risks in the feed-food chain. The discussions pinpointed some of the goal conflicts associated with pesticide use, with the risk of unsafe food and feed on the one hand, and reduced harvests with consequences for farmers and possibly food security on the other. Pesticides also affect the environment and are important drivers of pollinator decline. In her speech, Dr. Zucca highlighted the need to connect the dots between the impacts of pesticides on human and environmental health.

Tackling the disconnect between different perceptions of risk

The Managing emerging risks in the feed-food chain workshop also looked at how conflicting interests and risk perceptions can be managed. It was noted that risk means different things to different people and that the perception of risk plays a prominent role in the judgments and decisions people make regarding food safety, equality and sustainability.

This has implication for risk assessment, where risk managers (controllers) and risk assessors (scientists) may have conflicting views on contaminants and residues that impact human and environmental health. The disaccord can make analyses of risks complicated, especially if the different perspectives and conflicting goals are not understood and recognized.

The workshop therefore focused on risk analysis and effective communication between risk assessors, risk managers, and the public. Key messages from the discussions were the following:

  • Risk perception is a complex product of social, cultural, political, emotional, and intuitive factors.
  • Standards and the Precautionary principle within the feed and food value chain offer useful guidance on matters related to trade but are less helpful when it comes to the food consumption of individuals.
  • Risk communication is important but also difficult if we do not have all the information. It is also possible that people are not very receptive to messages about types of food that they themselves don’t consume.
Vulnerable groups often most affected

Vulnerable populations are often especially exposed to and affected by harmful chemicals, according to Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts Lowell. As a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous waste, he has studied how marginalized communities often live close to factories using or producing toxic materials, or in environments with high exposure to toxic waste. Other groups at risk are those handling the chemicals, which often includes agricultural workers, and especially migrant workers.

Exposure to chemicals has been shown to cause chronic diseases, reduced fertility, and metabolic and neurological disorders. Furthermore, it is suspected that chemicals can contribute to obesity by disrupting the metabolic system. Some examples of such chemicals are the pesticide DDT and PFAS, called “forever chemicals”, due to their ability to persist in our bodies and nature.

A triple crisis of chemicals, climate, and biodiversity loss

Despite plenty of evidence of the impacts of harmful chemicals on health and nature, the issue is still low on political agendas, even though it has been given somewhat more attention in recent years. During the summit, there was a clear call for treating chemical pollution with the same urgency as biodiversity loss and climate change, by UNEP described as a triple planetary crisis. “We are facing a tripledemic of biodiversity loss, climate change, and plastics,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics, and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics, NYU School of Medicine.

He pointed out that the challenges of the triple crisis must be tackled in an integrated manner to avoid solutions to one crisis turning out to be worsening another. There is for example a risk that new and potentially harmful substances are introduced in attempts to mitigate climate change.

Dr. Trasande highlighted the importance of developing a “vaccine” also for plastic pollution, just as the Global Biodiversity Framework tackles biodiversity loss and the Paris Agreement seeks to mitigate climate change. He hoped that the global plastics treaty that is currently negotiated can become such a vaccine if it includes legally binding measures.

From reactivity to proactivity – need for action from all actors

The global plastics treaty negotiations were frequently mentioned as a positive example of how we can “move from reactivity to proactivity”, a tagline of the summit. The idea to establish an inter-governmental science-policy panel for chemicals and waste was seen as another encouraging sign. Several speakers also highlighted the potential of policies currently discussed such as the proposed Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability of the European Union. If fully implemented, the EU strategy will be of great significance, said both Chemsec’s Executive Director Ann-Sofie Bäckar and Dr. Pete Meyers, who is Chief Scientist of non-profit Environmental Health Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.

Beyond regulations, Mr. Baskut Tuncak shared positive experiences from his work providing technical assistance to help businesses reduce their use of toxic chemicals through substitution. Ann-Sofie Bäckar echoed this and described great interest from progressive businesses and investors in finding more sustainable alternatives.

The need to look for and find solutions was emphasized by Mr. Desmond Alugnia, Africa Climate and Zero Waste program manager for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternative and co-founder of the Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO). In the final plenary session, he said that “the discussions we have had are beyond the room. It is a call to action and a call to recognize that leaving no one behind will require collaborations. Solutions can come from anywhere”.

Want to know more? Recordings from the summit can be found here.


Written by: Dr. Nelson Ekane, SEI, and Jonna Wiklund, SIANI