press release, 18. February 2021

Scientists Call for a Global Science Panel on Chemicals

Chemical Pollution is a Global Threat that Warrants Global Action

An international group of scientists led by ETH Zurich and with the collaboration of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research is proposing a global intergovernmental science-policy body for informing policymakers and the public on chemicals and waste. In a paper published in the current issue of the journal Science, the group explains how limited and fragmented science-policy interaction in current international governance of chemicals has contributed to widespread health and environmental harm.

 Photo: fotolia / graphic: Susan Walter / UFZ

Photo: fotolia / graphic: Susan Walter / UFZ

"We need international oversight to address issues that transcend borders, such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and plastic wastes," says lead author Dr. Zhanyun Wang, a Senior Scientist at the ETH Zürich in Switzerland. "This is critical for developed and developing countries where developing countries are the world’s dumping grounds for toxics."

Exposure to a small fraction of the over 100,000 chemicals in use has been estimated to have contributed to over 1.3 million premature deaths in 2017. The chemicals harmful to humans and the environment include those that keep our rain jackets water repellent but can cause cancer, pesticides that keep farmland clear of weeds and pests but contribute to killing bees, and metals from our waste digital devices and electric car batteries that pollute vulnerable e-waste workers and their families. Although pollution of the environment and humans is global, international policy makers do not have a global mechanism to inform themselves with up-to-date scientific evidence on a regular basis, limiting their ability to identify and address these issues in a timely manner. 

With the increasing amount and variety of chemicals in use, such harms will likely multiply. Global chemical sales reached over US$5.6 trillion in 2017 and are projected to almost double by 2030. Similar trends are also true for waste generation - the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean in 2025 is projected to be 10 times higher than in 2010.

The authors argue that a global, overarching intergovernmental science-policy body for chemicals and waste would help tackle the problem. This body would be akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for climate change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) for loss of biodiversity.

UFZ ecotoxicologist and co-author Rolf Altenburger explains: "Such an organization is urgently needed to inform policy makers about the state of the science and could also combat misinformation that delays action to protect human health and the environment." 

Dr. Wang adds: "Setting up a new science-policy body will not solve all problems with chemicals and waste. However, it will strengthen informed policymaking on managing chemicals and waste, including identifying issues with emerging scientific evidence and against vested interests. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and we hope the governments around the world will take this critical step toward a pollution-free planet."

Zhanyun Wang, Rolf Altenburger, Thomas Backhaus, Adrian Covaci, Miriam L. Diamond, Joan O. Grimalt, Rainer Lohmann, Andreas Schäffer, Martin Scheringer, Henrik Selin, Anna Soehl, Noriyuki Suzuki: We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste / Major gaps in current efforts limit policy responses; Science 371(6531), p. DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9090;

Further information

Dr. Zhanyun Wang
ETH Zurich

Prof. Dr. Rolf Altenburger
Head of the UFZ Research Unit "Chemicals in the Environment"

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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