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Low Pollution and Toxicity

Canister with imprint Toxico (toxic) laying around
Pie chart: over 3.4% of world population affected (over 200 millions) Bar chart: 234 000 deaths per year Steady/negative trend

Human health and ecosystems can bear only low levels of harmful substances, like pollutants and toxic agents.

Affected people and foundations of life: About 120 million people have blood lead levels of 5-10 µg/dl (microgramme per tenth of a litre), a similar amount of people have lead levels above 10 µg/dl, and 40% of children have above 5 µg/dl. Of the affected children, 97% live in the less developed world. (WHO [World Health Organization] 2002, 71.) Besides industrialization in general (e. g. [for example] smelters or battery recycling), leaded gasoline is the main cause (WHO 2002, 70f. [and following page]).
  Human activities have already doubled the entry of nitrogen into the earths surface and caused a run-off of nitrogen into coastal waters, which contributes to eutrophication of freshwater and coastal waters and acidification of freshwater systems and soils (MA [Millennium Assessment] 2005, 15). There are similar problems with phosphates. Sulphur emissions and acid deposition have been reduced in Europe and North America but are reaching dangerous levels in the rest of the world. (MA 2005, 122.) Globally, men-made acid deposition is nearly the natural level, nitric oxide emissions are as high as the natural level, and ammonia emissions are twice as high (WBGU [German Advisory Council on Global Change] 1998, 119f.). About 10 million tonnes of oil are routinely discharged by ships at sea every year (WBGU 1998, 40).
  Moreover, the pollution of the environment by toxics and other contaminants creates a considerable risk for different species and habitats, as well as for the stability of ecosystems generally. Humans are already affected directly by the increased risks such as diseases, pollutants in mother's milk, and fertility loss. The risks due to persistent organic pollutants and hormonally active substances are currently uncertain regarding both the extent of damage and the probability of occurrence. But the risks have in any case a high persistence, affecting several generations. (WBGU 1998, 62, 70.)

Deaths: no summarizing data. About 234 000 deaths, mainly male, were caused by lead in 2000 (WHO 2002, 226).

Loss of healthy life-years: no summarizing data. 12.9 million healthy life-years (DALYs [Disability-adjusted life years]) were lost due to lead in 2000 (WHO 2002, 228).


  • Production and use of 12 chemicals (POPs [Persistant Organic Pollutants]) like DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), and dibenzodioxins is restricted or forbidden by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants of 2001 (POPS.int).
  • to achieve, by 2020, that chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment (goal of the World Summit on Sustainable Development: UN [United Nations] 2002, § 23).

Trend: 0/ Most data show a stagnating or negative trend. Nevertheless, some 60 countries have phased out leaded petrol and 85% of petrol sold worldwide (mainly in industrialized countries) is lead-free (WHO 2002, 71). Nitrogen emissions are projected to increase worldwide to 2030, as well as other pollutants with the exception of North America and Europe (OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] 2008, 210).

Measures: The UN Environment Programme and UN Development Programme jointly support countries of the South in their chemicals management and in their integration into strategies for achieving the Millennium Goals (UNDP.org/chemicals).


1 tonne = 1 000 kg = 1 metric ton.

DALYs: Disability-adjusted life years.
One DALY represents the loss of one year of equivalent full health. DALYs are the sum of the years of life lost due to premature mortality (YLL) in the population and the years lost due to disability (YLD) for incident cases of the health condition. (WHO 2004, 95f.)


Draft (2008)

This draft is to be reviewed by experts. Your hints are welcome, please use the contact form.

Photo credit: © Andreas Levers - external.