Chemical production outpacing world’s ability to understand the risk, study warns

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With global chemical production increasing 50-fold since 1950 — and projected to triple again by 2050 compared to 2010 — its aggressive pace may outstrip society’s ability to adequately assess and monitor the risk, pushing the planet to the brink, a new study suggests.

There are an estimated 350,000 chemicals or mixtures on the global market, with nearly 70,000 registered in the past decade, and another 30,000 that have only been registered in emerging economies where chemical production has jumped beyond adequate disposal capacity, warns a team of 14 international researchers in the study published by the American Chemical Society.

A generalized impact pathway for novel entities connecting production capacity, environmental release, fate, and distribution to perturbation of Earth system processes. Image credit: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 3, 1510-1521

The emergence of more and more new chemicals that aren’t fully understood puts humanity out of a “safe operating space,” the authors say.

“Chemical pollution has the potential to cause severe ecosystem and human health problems at different scales, (but also to alter vital Earth system processes on which human life depends),” begins the study’s introduction in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology.

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Plastic production alone increased 79% between 2000 and 2015, the team found.

The range of manufactured chemicals, from plastics to pesticides, industrial chemicals, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, has pushed Earth beyond one of what scientists interpret as nine planetary boundaries that act as markers for the Earth’s health. These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. However, chemical pollution may have breached the boundary referred to as “novel entities,” or things made by humans and introduced into the environment.

The new study, in part, reviews the evolution of the scientific discussion related to the planetary boundary for novel entities. The scientists acknowledged the data was sparse in many areas, but said the weight of evidence indicated a breach of the planetary boundary.

“[…] Knowledge is lacking of the potential for adverse effects caused by the high number of chemicals, with limited data on chemical mixtures as found in the environment, produced intentionally and unintentionally,” the study states about the lack of ability to monitor chemicals.

The researchers said stronger regulation is critical to address the challenge of fast-paced chemical development and suggested a fixed cap on chemical production and release.

The chemical pollution planetary boundary is the fifth of nine that scientists say have been crossed. The other four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

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