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Sustainability and chemicals

Sound management of chemicals is necessary for achieving Agenda 2030 and a sustainable development. Chemicals control has a direct positive impact on health and access to clean water, as well as on the overall goal of sustainability and poverty reduction. The global sustainability goals also contribute to the realisation of many human rights, and there is a clear relation with chemicals management. Gender aspects need to be considered in relation to the management of chemicals to make sure that everyone is equally protected from risks from chemicals.

Agenda 2030 and chemicals

In 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted Agenda 2030 with 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets which aims at achieving sustainable economic, social, and environmental development by the year 2030. The Agenda is universal, and all countries have a responsibility to implement the agenda and to contribute to the achievement of the goals, both nationally and globally.

Several of the SDGs have direct or indirect connections to chemicals. The use of chemicals is today widespread in society and preventive chemicals control is therefore a prerequisite for a sustainable development and an important step to achieving most of the goals in Agenda 2030.

There are clear associations between sound chemicals management and several of the goals: safe food and agriculture (SDG 2), good health (SDG 3), clean water (SDG 6), safe working environments (SDG 8), sustainable cities (SDG 11), sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12), and protection of ecosystems and biodiversity in water and on land (SDG 14 and 15). Chemicals are mentioned specifically in three targets (3.9, 6.3 and 12.4).

These goals can in turn contribute to reduction of poverty (SDG 1) and reduction of illness and improve the standard of living for all people (SDG 3). Investment in preventive chemicals control lays the ground for social welfare and contributes to the reduction of poverty. Preventive chemicals control therefore also contributes to the goals relating to economic growth (SDG 8) and innovation (SDG 9). In SDG target 16.6, the importance effective, accountable and transparent institutions, and thus of legal frameworks, is highlighted, to promote peace, justice and strong, institutions.

Symbols for the 17 global sustainabilty goals

SDG targets specifically mentioning chemicals

3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination
6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
12.4 By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment

Sustainable development and the international chemicals goal

Target 12.4 is that by 2020 achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with the agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment. This is also in line with the international chemicals goal and the global strategy for chemicals, SAICM (Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management). Work is ongoing to develop a new strategy and goals for the time beyond 2020.

Human rights and chemicals

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that hazardous chemicals and waste may constitute a serious threat to the full enjoyment of human rights. Hazardous chemicals and wastes can have effects on a broad range of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. Under international human rights law, states have a duty to protect human rights and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including those implicated by hazardous substances and waste. The rapid increase in chemical production suggests the likelihood that this is an increasing threat, particularly for the human rights of the most vulnerable.

For people to be able to protect themselves and the environment from negative effects of chemicals they should be able to exercise a number of human rights. To take necessary precautions, information about the properties of chemicals must be provided. The right to adequate housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, is also related to information on chemicals.

If land or property is damaged or if someone is harmed due to the use of chemicals there must be legal remedies to file a complaint. People have the right to require food and water free from hazardous pesticides.

The Aarhus Convention, which was adopted in 1998, establishes a number of rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. The Parties to the Convention are required to make the necessary provisions so that public authorities (at national, regional or local level) will contribute to these rights to become effective. The Convention provides for the following:

  • The right of everyone to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities. In addition, public authorities are obliged to actively disseminate environmental information in their possession.
  • The right to participate in environmental decision-making.
  • The right to review procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting the two aforementioned rights or environmental law in general.

Gender and chemicals

Exposure to chemicals can affect all humans, but it can be in different ways depending on gender. These differences can result from several physiological and socio-economic factors such as roles, responsibilities, and inequalities. Biological factors such as size and physiological differences between women and men, and between adults and children can influence susceptibility to health damage from exposure to hazardous chemicals. Social factors could influence the division of labour between genders, which have a direct impact on human exposure to hazardous chemicals, including the types of chemicals encountered as well as the level and frequency of such exposures. Gender mainstreaming in the context of chemicals management involves assessing and planning for how the harmful chemicals affect children, women and men differently and to increase the knowledge about the exposure and thus the risks for different groups.

The inclusion of both men and women in policy development and decision making brings to the table different experiences and perspectives that serve to strengthen policies and interventions.

The exposure of workers in areas where the use of chemicals is extensive is of particular concern, such as agriculture, production of textiles and electronics etc. While men and women are generally both involved in all those professions, ILO statistics show that women in developing countries tend to have a higher level of informal employment, and therefore less access to benefits and social protection.

The sensitivity to chemicals differs due to physiological differences such as age and biological sex. Children are in many cases more prone to the effects of chemicals than adults and exposure at an early age may cause lasting damage for example to the nervous system and reproductive capacity. It is particularly serious when pregnant and lactating persons are exposed to hazardous chemicals as they during this time can transfer toxic chemicals to the foetus or child, which can cause irreversible damage to the child's development.

The physiological differences in susceptibility to harm from exposure to chemicals, between e.g. male and female and between adults and children, should be considered when assessing and managing risks to ensure that the measures implemented addresses the rights of all groups to a high level of protection. The social norms on gender and how they affect exposure to chemicals should be considered when prioritising and deciding on measures to ensure a fair allocation of resources. A fair representation of genders in decision-making will ensure that perspectives of all those concerned are considered.

Read more about gender mainstreaming in the field of chemicals and waste on the website of the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. External link.

Read more about gender mainstreaming and chemicals on the SAICM Knowledge Hub External link.

The Swedish Chemicals Agency supported a project that investigated gender aspects in the handling of chemicals and waste, through case studies in Nigeria and Indonesia. The output was a documentary film and a report. This project was one of several projects supported by the Swedish Chemicals Agency via the secretariat for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.

Read more and watch the film "What has gender got to do with chemicals?" External link.

Read more about the case studies and the report "Gender dimensions of hazardous chemicals and waste policies under the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm convention" External link.

On the e-learning platform UN CC:learn, you can find the online training course "Gender and Environment". This contains a module about Gender, Chemicals and Waste.

UN CC:learn online training course "Gender and environment" External link.

UNEP has collected a number of stories to bring forth a picture of grassroots action being taken around the world every day by individuals and communities to protect the most vulnerable segments of our population from the potentially harmful effects of certain chemicals and wastes.

UNEP publication “Gender Heroes: From Grassroots to Global Action” External link.


Illustrations by Maja Modén (except the ones on the Sustainable Development Goals).

Last published 5 October 2022