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.


Australians live in a chemical soup. We are 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.

AEGN philanthropy briefing: toxics

This briefing will help you understand the science and policy landscape around toxic chemicals and demystify an area that uses highly technical language. Written by Joanna Immig and Dr Mariann Lloyd Smith, it draws on the 2016 State of the Environment report and other research to explain the impact of toxic chemicals on human health and nature, and what we need to do in response. Please note the 2021 State of the Environment report has since been released providing updated data — see the report’s air quality chapter and chapter briefing for more information.

What philanthropy can do

In addressing urgent environmental challenges, the goal for managing toxic chemical pollution is to work towards a toxics free future. We need to move from a linear “take, make and dispose” economy to localised, regenerative and circular systems that encompass all key aspects of energy, food production and waste.

Some key challenges include:

  • reversing the ongoing dismantling of regulatory protections against chemical pollution and the continued slide towards self-regulation of polluting industries
  • re-instating the processes whereby the community can meaningfully engage with pollution issues that impact them
  • halting the ongoing corporatisation and misuse of science in decision-making processes to justify and subsidise technologies that further entrench pollution
  • finding creative ways to halt and move around the global reach and power of chemical corporations over governments.