Toxic chemical pollution underlies many environmental challenges, yet it is generally overlooked: industrial chemicals pervade our culture and the pollution they create is often invisible. The reality is Australians live in a chemical soup, exposed to thousands of toxic chemical emissions from food, water and everyday products, and impacts are difficult to quantify.
While evidence shows that exposure to toxic chemicals is harmful, our rapidly increasing use of chemicals is outpacing our ability to combat their emissions. We are managing chemicals poorly and there is growing international concern over the threat this poses to the health of communities and ecosystems, as demonstrated by the issue’s prominence in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Most chemicals in the marketplace have never been adequately assessed for their health and environmental impacts, and while Australian chemical regulators are working on the backlog, around 30,000 unassessed chemicals remain in common use. Climate change is exacerbating the problem, with a rapidly warming world increasing the emissions and toxicity of chemicals already polluting the environment.
The 2016 Australia State of the Environment report documents a range of pollution impacts. The quantity of hazardous waste is projected to rise dramatically. Air pollution remains a serious health threat. And biodiversity – highly susceptible to major pollution events like oil spills – faces significant pollution pressure: marine debris and ingestion of plastics (and associated chemical pollutants) by marine animals is cited as the largest pollution issue of concern for biodiversity in Australia.
To manage toxic chemical pollution we need to embrace a toxic free future, moving from a “take, make and dispose” economy to a localised circular system that encompasses all key aspects of energy, food production and waste. Governments need to recommit to fundamental principles of chemical regulation and implement chemical reform. The “polluter pays” principle and the public’s right to know need to be enshrined in law. The onus of proof of safety needs to be placed on chemical manufacturers while creating incentives for their industries to substitute safer, greener chemistries and production methods. And hazardous chemicals must be phased out as an urgent priority.