4. A Non-Toxic Environment

4. A Non-Toxic Environment. Photo: Göran Nyrén/Johnér Bildbyrå."The occurrence of man-made or extracted substances in the environment must not represent a threat to human health or biological diversity. Concentrations of non-naturally occurring substances will be close to zero and their impacts on human health and on ecosystems will be negligible. Concentrations of naturally occurring substances will be close to background levels." 

Dangerous chemicals in products and buildings risk ending up in the environment, and may be absorbed by plants, animals and humans. Environmental levels of many substances are too high and are causing problems for people and the environment. A few per cent of the population, for example, have high concentrations of cadmium in their kidneys, and PCBs and brominated flame retardants can be found in breast milk. Endocrine disruptors are suspected of causing common diseases. In some places, such as old factory and petrol station sites, soils are heavily contaminated.

Levels of many well-known toxic pollutants in the environment, such as DDT, PCBs and some brominated flame retardants, have fallen. Levels of highly fluorinated substances have increased and contaminated drinking water.

What are the challenges?

Persistent substances that are dispersed in the environment or stored in products and buildings can affect people and the environment over a long period of time. Growth in consumption is increasing production of chemicals and other products, and with it the spread of dangerous substances. In many cases, we still know very little about how chemicals affect human health and the environment. Chemical risks need to be prevented by a better understanding of the hazardous properties of substances, information on how they are used and, in certain cases, regulations to restrict their use.

In recent decades, the use of many hazardous chemicals has been reduced by Swedish environmental laws, stricter EU legislation and international agreements. Voluntary measures, such as ecolabelling, environmental management systems in companies, and organic farming, have also contributed to progress.

To further limit the spread of dangerous substances, all these measures must continue to be developed. There is a need both for more international agreements and for technological development, for example in the area of ‘green chemistry’.