Chemicals in the everyday environment

Everything consists of chemical substances. Man-made chemical substances and substances extracted from nature have contributed greatly to increased prosperity. However, some have also caused serious damage to human beings and the environment. Not all chemical substances are hazardous but they can still pose a risk if handled incorrectly.

A chemical product is a chemical substance, such as acetone, or a mixture of chemical substances, such as petrol. Examples of chemical products in the home are dishwashing and cleaning detergents, glue, paint and lamp oil.

Materials that are manufactured from or with the aid of chemical products are replacing to an increasing degree the natural materials found in articles, such as wood, metal and leather. Such articles may also be treated with substances to make them fire-resistant or water-resistant or to give them other specific properties. Over the past fifty years, the chemicals production in the world has increased more than fifty times over and many of the products we use every day contain and emit chemicals.

The risks to humans and the environment

Some chemical substances do not degrade but accumulate in the bodies of human beings and animals. Some chemical substances are harmful in that they give rise to problems such as allergies. Researchers have found over 300 substances in human blood samples and breast milk, some of which can interfere with the hormone system or nervous system.

Children and young people are more sensitive to chemicals than are adults. This is partly because their bodies, including the brain, hormone system and immune system, are not fully developed. This may mean life-long consequences if damage occurs during childhood.

Chemical products can be acutely toxic, which means they may cause damage such as corrosive injuries straight away. They may also harm the environment. A chemical substance contained in an article can be absorbed by human skin, accumulate in the dust we inhale, or end up in the natural environment. A large amount of articles also results in a large amount of waste materials, which can in turn leach hazardous substances. We can be indirectly affected by substances which leach into the natural environment, spread further into the soil and water and then into vegetables and fish, and end up on our dinner table.

Companies bear responsibility

Companies which manufacture, import or sell chemical products and articles are responsible for ensuring that these do not harm human health or the environment. There are rules stating that companies must have the correct knowledge and conduct assessments of how hazardous their products are, and that they must seek to eliminate hazardous substances and reduce the risks. It is also the responsibility of companies to ensure that chemical products so requiring it have a danger symbol and are labelled sufficiently clearly.

Find out more about chemicals on the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) website.

Historical dates

Sweden has a long tradition of issuing rules to reduce the risks connected with toxins. The primary concern has been to protect human health.

1688 the issue of medical regulations stating that toxins had to be handled by apothecaries.

1756 the issue of two lists of toxins, one list containing those toxins for handling only by an apothecary, and one containing those permitted for use by dyers and for controlling vermin.

1876 the issue of regulations on arsenic prohibiting the sale of toys containing toxic dyes and all wallpaper, candles and wafers containing toxic substances.

1906 the issue of a decree on toxins requiring the labelling of these and also certain articles.

1926 the introduction of warning labels for acids and lye stating "Poison - do not consume. Must not be stored in an ordinary bottle ...".

1953 the establishment of requirements for registering pesticides.

1962 the issue of regulations on toxins and the establishment of the Poison Board (Giftnämnden). The publication of Rachel Carson's book entitled "Silent Spring", in which the author describes what she understands to be the devastating effects on nature of the use of pesticides, such as DDT.

1967 the issue of the EC Directive on the classification, labelling and packaging of dangerous substances.

1969 Sweden became the first country in the world to ban DDT. The Environmental Protection Act was introduced.

1972 the first UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm.

1973 the passing of the Act on Products Hazardous to Health and the Environment. The establishment of the Products Control Board under the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

1978 Swedish companies started reporting their products to the Products Register.

1986 the establishment of the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate on the recommendation of a commission set up by the Swedish Parliament; the passing of the Chemical Products Act.

1991 the passing of an Act requiring the pre-review of biological pesticides.

1995 Sweden became a member of the European Union, and EU-wide regulations were introduced to cover areas such as pesticides and classification and labelling.

2002 UN members agree on a global and harmonised labelling system.

2005 adoption of the EU proposal for European legislation on chemicals, REACH (entered into force in 2007).

2008 the EU adopted the proposal for a regulation on the classification, labelling and packaging of chemical substances and mixtures, CLP (in force since 2009).

2013 the signing of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.