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Greenpeace is campaigning for a toxic-free future where hazardous chemicals are no longer produced, used and dumped into our environment. This includes chemicals which are persistent, toxic, bioaccumulative, carcinogenic and disruptive to human hormones.
Two years ago, we began research on the global use, release and production of hazardous chemicals. This internal research was part of a wider effort to help us reassess our Detox strategy. Audience research, corporate and policy intelligence, among other things, helped us decide which industrial sectors and chemicals to focus on. We asked: where in the supply chain of sector X are hazardous chemicals used and/or released? What are the current trends for this particular group of hazardous chemicals? Can we identify key companies responsible?
Mapping chemicals globally? It is probably easier to count stars!
There are many hazardous chemicals that we have tackled in past and current campaigns like Detox My Fashion or Detox Outdoor, and so many we haven’t identified yet. There are new toxic scandals every day, lack of regulation, lack of transparency, so much stuff being produced. There are the countless stories of people and communities affected by toxic pollution.
We decided to focus on hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals that are well known, build a list and closely examine specific sectors and chemicals groups.
In addition to the electronics, toys, cosmetics and household product sectors, we included work we had done on chemicals used by the textile industry. The six chemical groups that we decided to analyse are: per and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), phthalates, heavy metals, bisphenol A (BPA), brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and alkylphenols/alkylphenol ethoxylates (APs/APEs).
What a hazardous world
We produced two main documents: a list of hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals, compiled from various inter-governmental and governmental lists, as well as company and NGO lists. The other document offers a deeper analysis of the key findings of our research on the four selected sectors and six selected chemical groups.
We identified more than 17,000 potentially hazardous chemicals and found toxic problems in both the supply chains of the selected sectors and the current trends of the chemical groups we focused on. The main obstacle to a toxic-free world is the lack of available information and transparency. Hazardous chemicals are everywhere – in smartphones, in sunscreens, in the body of factory workers, in rivers, in fish and even in our own bodies. And they are very difficult to detect. All in all, toxic pollution seems to be out of control…
Detox? We can do it!
There are some initiatives that make us hopeful about the future. Because of the work done by Greenpeace and other organisations, some companies are becoming more transparent and some progressive government mechanisms, such as the REACH, are in place. Our research shows that substitution of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives is taking place in certain industries, unfortunately not fast enough. The process needs to be accelerated and bad substitutions need to be avoided.
Greenpeace Science Unit at Exeter University
The good news is that people are becoming more aware of the problem of hazardous chemicals and toxic pollution, not only in developed countries but also in the Global South where most of the production takes place.
After completing it, we shared it with others who are trying to detox the planet, with companies, government and citizens who are dealing with toxic pollution in one way or another. This research doesn’t claim to hold the whole truth and offer all solutions. It is simply a contribution on the road towards a toxic-free future. It is open.
Pierre Terras is a Senior Detox Campaigner at Greenpeace International.