WHO warning on the public health impact of chemicals

Chemical exposures are causing a public health catastrophe claiming over a million lives worldwide each year, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report has concluded.

The public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns’, produced by the UN body’s International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), estimates that 1.3 million lives and 43 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) were lost in 2012 due to exposures to selected chemicals.

However, it says data are only available for a small number of chemical exposures and people are exposed to many more chemicals every day. The report notes that chemical production is increasing “and, with it, the potential for chemical exposure.”

It adds: “Chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, paints, detergents, kerosene, carbon monoxide and drugs lead to unintentional poisonings at home and in the workplace. Unintentional poisonings are estimated to cause 193,000 deaths annually with the major part being from preventable chemical exposures.”

WHO says to quantify population health impacts from exposure to chemicals, a systematic literature review compiled estimates and summaries of chemical exposure and links between the respective chemicals and disease or injury.

“The preferred source was global estimates of population impacts for selected chemicals based on comparative risk assessment (CRA), followed by estimates based on more limited epidemiological data or, finally, expert opinion,” the report notes.

Occupational and environmental cancers are included in the WHO calculations, although the estimates used may be considered by critics to be conservative and based on an incomplete list of known causes, leaning heavily on work initiated by the UK Health and Safety Executive and co-authored by Lesley Rushton of Imperial College London.

The WHO report notes: “The list of chemicals classified as human carcinogens with sufficient or limited evidence is long. Occupational carcinogens are estimated to cause between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of all cancers. For the general population it is estimated that 14 per cent of lung cancers are attributable to ambient air pollution, 17 per cent to household air pollution, 2 per cent to second-hand smoke and 7 per cent to occupational carcinogens.”

It adds: “Reducing exposure to hazardous chemicals is essential to  achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” developed by the United Nations.

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