Chemicals and waste
Protecting humans and the environment from exposure to hazardous chemicals and waste
The work of UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch has generated a wealth of information, data and knowledge related to chemicals and wastes. To assist countries and stakeholders with meeting various environmental targets and objectives of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, activities were conducted with digital tools developed and data generated 1) to monitor globally the presence of POPs and mercury in humans and in the environment; (2) to develop national inventories of POPs and mercury; (3) to strengthen knowledge sharing and usage for informed decision-making on environmentally sound management on chemicals and waste; and (4) to promote an integrated approach to address pollution and waste towards achieving the sustainable development goals.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals widely used throughout the supply chain in all kinds of products and released in the environment intentionally or not. POPs remain intact for a long time, accumulate and magnify in living organisms through the food chain and are toxic to both humans and wildlife. Since 2004, POPs are globally banned by the Stockholm Convention but are still widely distributed throughout the environment. Parties to the Convention are committed to cease production and use of listed POPs. As of 2022, 31 POPs have been listed as pesticides, industrial POPs or unintentional POPs. New POPs or chemicals with potential POP features are continuously created and entered into production causing increased pressures for the protection of humans and the environment from these toxic chemicals.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty, entered into force in 2017, to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. While Mercury, a toxic heavy metal, is naturally occurring, it is also a by-product of a number of industrial processes and can be found in many everyday objects, including batteries, dental amalgam, thermometers and fluorescent lamps. Once released to the atmosphere, soil and water - for example through coal burning, and artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) - mercury bioaccumulates in fish, animals and humans, posing a serious threat to humans and the environment.
Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is a global health threat. Antimicrobials are agents intended to kill or inhibit the growth of microbes. They include antibiotics, fungicides, antiviral agents, and parasiticides. Disinfectants, antiseptics, other chemicals, and pharmaceuticals may also have antimicrobial properties. For decades antimicrobials have contributed to the reduction of infectious disease in humans, animals, and plants, saving lives and increasing productivity. Their effectiveness is now in jeopardy, as microbes evolve resistance and antimicrobials treatments are rendered less effective. The environmental dimensions of AMR contribute to the development, transmission and spread of AMR to humans, animals, and plants. The United Nations General Assembly (UNEA) has requested that UNEP work in close collaboration with FAO, WHO and WOAH in a One Health approach to address AMR. The Quadripartite Joint Secretariat on AMR has since been established to address a global response across the One Health spectrum. Included in the Quadripartite work plan is implementation of several data collection initiatives.
Monitoring is an essential activity to assess the level of hazardous chemicals in humans and in the environment. Monitoring consists of sampling and analysing specific matrices (air, water, soil, human milk…) to determine the concentration of pollutants in these matrices and repeating this activity over time to see global trends.
To support measuring the effectiveness of the Stockholm Convention and actions on sound management of POPs, UNEP has conducted long-term POPs monitoring activities in collaboration with partner institutes and countries. Up to now, the WHO/UNEP human milk survey has generated data for 82 countries in the last twenty years. Air monitoring activity has covered 42 countries in the Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America regions. Following the listing of water as a core media for POPs monitoring under the Stockholm Convention, studies were carried out in 22 countries to measure PFAS in water. In addition, to support strengthening regional capacities for sustainable monitoring of POPs, several capacity building activities were conducted, including 44 trainings in national laboratories from 2008-2021, and four rounds of global interlaboratory assessments, in which 284 laboratories from all UN regions participated. The projects results are presented in the interactive dashboard.
Responding to the need for further guidance on the establishment of a global monitoring system for mercury, UNEP, in collaboration with partners and with financial support from the GEF, has been implementing a project monitoring human exposure and environmental concentration of mercury.
Since 2017 the MapX team has been supporting UNEP by developing a customized map interface and specific dashboards to support the integration of chemicals data in a single geospatial platform. Environmental risk indicators applicable to individual pollutant sites have also been calculated at national level on more than 20 countries of Africa and the Mediterranean region, based on a methodology developed by the FAO.
A laboratory databank has been developed to support global collaboration on the monitoring and analysis of hazardous chemicals. For the moment, the databank has included laboratories analyzing POPs, mercury and lead paint from all UN regions through voluntary registration.
Inventories are the first step to identify and quantify emissions and releases from and stockpiles of hazardous chemicals and eventually help decision making regarding their sound management including disposal of these chemicals.
UNEP's Toolkit for identification and quantification of mercury releases is intended to assist countries to identify and quantify the sources of mercury releases to develop national mercury releases inventories. These inventories will assist countries in setting priorities and reduction targets, and enhance international co-operation, knowledge sharing and enable targeted technical assistance. Moreover, inventories from countries contribute to the scientific knowledge of the scale of worldwide mercury releases as demonstrated in the Global Mercury Assessment.
Minamata Initial Assessment Mercury Inventories
To better understand the global sources of mercury emissions and releases and to further develop the Toolkit, UNEP collaborated with Biodiversity Research Institute to conduct an analysis of the available inventories produced as a part of the Minamata Initial Assessments (MIAs). The inventories from 43 countries from around the world were compiled and analyzed. The selected countries represent a range of socio-economic backgrounds, regions, and sizes (both in population and geographic area). Further aggregation and analysis of Toolkit results from MIAs was conducted to produce the interactive dashboard allowing users to explore data from inventories and gain insights into patters of mercury releases by sector and region.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of POPs produced in large quantities between the 1930s and 1980s. 90% of the PCB used is in electric transformer or capacitator. Although no longer allowed to be produced, PCB can still be found everywhere. It is a global issue, everyone in the world is likely to have PCB quantities in their body. The Stockholm Convention obliges countries to eliminate the use of PCB in equipment by 2025 and make determined efforts to lead to the environmentally sound management of waste liquids and equipment contaminated with PCB by 2028. Under his mandate, UNEP helps countries reach the 2025 and 2028 targets.
UNEP provides support for the disposal and destruction of POPs. Through the GEF-funded project “Disposal of PCB oils contained in transformers and disposal of capacitors containing PCB in Southern Africa”, 12 project countries will develop their PCB inventories, national phaseout plans including a cost-benefit analysis to support phasing out PCB contaminated equipment at the same time contributing to improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emission.
Reliable POPs inventories are the first step in POPs management and will help to meet the aims and deadlines set in the Stockholm Convention. The aim of the inventory is to identify, quantify and m aintain records of POPs, equipment and the materials prone to containing or being contaminated with POPs. This information is indispensable when preparing a national implementation plan, which should encompass the entire lifecycle of these products.
Because PCB disposal requires a thorough understanding of where and how much PCB there is, tools to gather, analyze, manage, and visualize spatial data are important. UNEP works with MapX platform to develop a customized application to support information management needs related to PCB removal at the national level.
Actions are required to assess impact, manage production and disposal of harmful chemicals. These actions must be guided by national legislation developed taking into account best technologies available, assessment of pollutants contamination in country and existing regulations.
Development of a National Action Plans (NAPs) to eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a requirement under the Minamata Convention on Mercury for countries where this activity has been recognized as significant. With funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNEP is supporting countries in the development of their NAPs by providing technical assistance and guidance in mercury-free technologies, formalization, baseline assessments, and other topics. To assess the wealth of information generated in the NAPs, the finalized documents have been reviewed and quantitative and qualitative data has been extracted. Explore the data through interactive dashboard and stories.
The Stockholm Convention requires parties to develop and periodically update a National Implementation Plan (NIP) explaining what is needed at the national level (development of legislation or regulation, developing inventories of toxic waste etc.) to protect human health and the environment from POPs. The National Implementation Plan guides national regulation and legislation, decision making and effective actions to address POPs throughout supply chain and their lifecycle. The plan is a living document combining strategy, process, and action, which are all closely tied to the national development agenda. UNEP is providing capacity building help for the development and updating of the National Implementation Plans. To assist countries reporting, UNEP is developing a toolkit for NIPs – including an online form - and e-training courses.
Through the Global Health Observatory, WHO has developed an online database of countries having a lead paint law in place. Adoption’s date, scopes and concentration limits are available there.
Integrated health and environment approach to translate pollutant chemicals data and information into economic arguments
An integrated approach - taking into account all available information, data and science, and connecting monitoring, assessment, policy making and control actions - is critical to support global joint efforts on sound management of harmful chemicals.
UNEP, WHO and the Africa Institute have created a robust partnership to develop the Environmental Observatories for the Sound Management of Chemicals in Africa. The project aims to build capacity in setting up an integrated health and environment observatory surveillance and information management systems in Africa in order to establish evidence based policies and make sustainable decisions on sound management of chemicals and related disease burdens.
Project partners include UNEP Chemicals, UNEP Crisis Management Branch, UNEP/GRID-Geneva, Pure Earth and the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK). Preliminary results of the project have been published in the MapX platform. Click on the links below to access geospatial layers and dashboards.
Cost-benefit analysis for replacement of PCB contaminated transformers
In developing countries, some PCB contaminated transformers produced before 1990 are still in use. These old models not only indicate a health risk to humans and the environment, but also involves high energy loss. A cost-benefit model was developed to calculate the investment and paybacks—for both disposal of PCB and energy efficiency to tackle carbon emission—in twelve Southern Africa Developing Countries.
The Institute for Health and Metrics Evaluation created an interactive visualization that allows to explore the global burden of disease from lead exposure. Data can be sorted by country, gender, number of deaths, years, DAILYs, etc.
The Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) was adopted in 2015 by all countries through decisions in the World Health Assembly, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Governing Conference and the World Assembly of World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) Delegates. Countries agreed to have a National Action Plan on AMR that is consistent with the Global Action Plan, and to implement relevant policies and plans to prevent, control and monitor AMR.
To monitor country progress in the implementation of the national actions plans, an annual AMR country self-assessment survey (TrACSS) is jointly administered by FAO, UNEP, WHO and WOAH. The results of the previous five rounds of country self-assessment surveys are available at amrcountryprogress.org
Persistent Organic Pollutants• Mercury• Lead and Cadmium• Antimicrobial Resistance• Environmental persistent pharmaceutical pollutants• Chemicals in products• Endocrine disrupting chemicals• Highly hazardous pesticides• Sustainable chemistry • OEWG Science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention
Related Sustainable Development Goals