Policies on the frontline: the silent pandemic of chemicals

This piece by Emanuela Barbiroglio will be published in The Beam #12. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


The World Future Council (WFC) is currently working on a Future Policy Award (FPA) on Hazardous Chemicals. Alexandra Wandel, executive director of the WFC, is in charge of external and council liaison programmes, alongside the FPA in partnership with UN agencies. The Beam had a chat with her about the dangers of hazardous chemicals and the way in which they impact both human health and the environment.

How will the Future Policy Award on Hazardous Chemicals help policy makers and eventually societies who are now negatively affected by the use of hazardous chemicals?

Our aim is to pass on a healthy and sustainable planet, with just societies, to future generations. To achieve this, we spread effective and future-just policies. One important pillar of our work is the annual Future Policy Award, where we focus on one topic every year. In fact, it is the first award that highlights policies rather than people! This year, we have decided to search for good policies that protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals. The best policies will be honoured at the ICCM5 conference, the fifth session of the International Conference for Chemicals Management, in July 2021. Winners will receive a world-wide platform, while policy-makers, academia and civil society will have the opportunity to learn more about those policies. By doing so, we are building networks and facilitating exchange. We want to inspire policy-makers with existing, effective solutions. After the award ceremony, we are planning a study tour to one of the winning countries or states to look closely at how the award-winning policies work. It is a very inspiring and interactive way to encourage better policy-making.

Why did the WFC decide to focus on this issue? What is the history of your commitment?

When Jakob von Uexkull, who is also the founder of the Alternative Nobel Prize, launched the WFC in 2007, he was driven by the idea that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. With the Future Policy Award, we are giving good policies an international platform. Each year, we identify one topic on which policy progress is particularly urgent. When we were screening relevant topics in 2020/2021, we realised that every year, 1.6 million people die because they are exposed to harmful chemicals – this is about 4.300 each day. Most babies today are born “pre-polluted” as their mothers have been exposed to hazardous substances.

Given that the chemical industry is a booming market – according to the UN, the current chemical production capacity of 2.3 billion tonnes is projected to double by 2030 – it requires regulation and sound management of hazardous chemicals. It is time to address this issue.


©STOREMASTA. Hazardous Chemical Storage ©STOREMASTA. Hazardous Chemical Storage


What does the word ‘hazardous’ refer to? What are the impacts of these chemicals on the environment and human health?

From our perspective, chemicals are ‘hazardous’ if they cause harm to human health and the environment. Particularly problematic are chemicals that end up in our environment, in the food chain and soil, air and drinking water and so accumulate in our bodies. Many hazardous chemicals are found in the food that we eat, with potential harmful long-term effects. In this sense, children are more vulnerable than adults due to the ratio between body weight and levels of exposure and are also more sensitive to developmental growth spurts. There is a silent pandemic of disability and disease associated with exposure to toxics and pollution during childhood. Toxic chemicals may interfere with the normal expression of genes, brain development, the function of hormones and other processes necessary for children to grow into healthy adults.

What does science say about alternatives?

The key word here is ‘sustainable chemistry’. It means that we meet our needs for chemical products by using natural resources more efficiently and in a safe, environment-friendly way. This includes the design, the manufacturing and the use of chemicals. Many international institutions have been working around this topic for a couple of years, like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2017, the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) was established by the German Federal Environment Ministry and Federal Environment Agency but is still in early stages. We need to bear in mind that this is a challenge that requires multinational action.


© WorldFutureCouncil, Dietmar Mathis. Alexandra Wandel at  World Future Forum 2017. 
© WorldFutureCouncil, Dietmar Mathis. Alexandra Wandel at World Future Forum 2017.


The chemical industry is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. How can a reduction be achieved? Are climate-friendly chemicals even possible? 

The chemical and petrochemical industry is very diverse and complex, so there is no one size fits all solution to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. However, there are ways to achieve that, for example by using cutting-edge technology. Studies show that the greenhouse gas emissions from the chemical industry can be reduced by 2050 to 36% – whilst still supporting the sector’s growth.

Climate-friendly chemicals are possible and business and governments need to work urgently to substitute all chemicals with climate-friendly alternatives. Therefore, good regulations that protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals remain critical.

What are the challenges faced during the process of designing and implementing policies? How can they be overcome?

From my point of view, one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that the policies have a holistic approach. They need to take all different aspects into account: the national and international context, as well as all stakeholders including women and children. Policies also need a long-term perspective. A good, comprehensive policy is a policy that protects people and the environment from hazardous chemicals, motivates and supports business and science to work on safe and sustainable (chemical) alternatives in three ways: environmentally, socially and economically. Therefore, we need joint approaches, where governments, civil society, science and industry have their say.