Chapter 1 - The importance of chemical toxicants in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) provision

1.1 Better living through chemistry?

1962 Union Carbide advertisement that ran in magazines such as National Geographic and Scientific American. [Source:]

If you had to guess, how many unique chemical substances are there in the world? Hundreds? Thousands? A million?

In May of 2019, the Chemical Abstracts Service – the giant international database of all known chemicals – registered its 150 millionth unique chemical substance[1].

In recent decades, new chemical substances have been synthesized at a rate of about 10 million per year[2]. The best current estimate, through probably an underestimate, is that around 350,000 chemicals and mixtures have been registered for widespread production and use in significant quantities[3]. These are chemicals used in agriculture such as pesticides and herbicides, in pharmaceuticals and consumer products, and in a wide array of industrial processes. For many of these chemicals little is known about their toxicity to humans and other organisms, environmental persistence, or tendency to bioaccumulate in the food chain. Most of these chemicals are unregulated and do not have contamination limits set for food or water. For example, the World Health Organization has published Guideline Values for only 12 inorganic chemical contaminants, 19 industrial organic chemicals, and 35 pesticides in drinking water[*][4].

Today, the manufacture, use, and disposal of hazardous chemicals is a highly globalized process[3, 5-7]. Over the past two decades chemical industries have massively shifted from the US and Western Europe to developing countries[8]. This has happened through rapid and unplanned industrialization, transfer of manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceutical production to regions lacking regulations or enforcement of worker and environmental protections, trade in and stockpiling of obsolete or banned chemicals such as pesticides, proliferation of informal mining activities, widespread dumping of consumer wastes such as e-waste, and so on[7, 8]. All of this has had profoundly damaging effects on the environment and human health, especially in poor countries[9].

How did we get here? To oversimplify things only a little, the transfer of chemical production and use – and more importantly, chemical pollution – from developed countries to the poorer areas of the world is part of a global process that I call, somewhat provocatively, the Imperial Wealth Pump and Waste Dump. Under this system, cheap labor (often child labor) in developing countries is exploited to extract natural resources to provide raw materials for the manufacture of Western consumer goods. Examples include the rare earth elements[10] and minerals like coltan[11] necessary for the manufacture of tech devices such as smartphones and laptops, and agrichemical-intensive plantation crops grown for export. Industries that make pharmaceuticals and other chemical products are sited in locales with permissive policies regarding pollution and politically disenfranchised local laboring classes[7, 12]. At the risk of stating a tautology, the majority of the benefits of consumer products and services are enjoyed by the affluent, whereas the costs are borne by others. Used-up consumer products are frequently “recycled,” which sadly is often just a euphemism for “dumped in poor communities to salvage what they can.” Notable examples of this practice are e-waste dumpsites in Africa[13], China[14], and South Asia[15], and the “donating” of obsolete pesticides (stockpiles of chemicals that were banned in developed countries due to their environmental persistence, toxicity, and tendency to bioaccumulate) to African countries as “development assistance”[16].

Box 1: Our Third-World creditors, or, the Bizarro Robin Hood global economy*

Not only does the Imperial-Wealth-Pump… extract “real wealth” in the form of goods, services, labor, and natural resources from poor countries to benefit rich countries, it also extracts money-wealth. According to University of Colorado researcher Dr. Evan Thomas[17], Around 160 billion dollars per year are provided as foreign aid by high-income countries to low-income countries. If you add in benefits to developing regions from trade, direct foreign investment, remittances, and debt cancellation, around 2 trillion dollars per year flow into developing countries. However, adding up all the money-wealth extracted from developing countries in the form of financial outflows, interest payments on debt, repatriation of corporate profits, trade mis-invoicing scams, tax avoidance, and capital flight, comes to upwards of 5 trillion dollars per year. This net transfer of around 3 trillion dollars per year from poor countries to rich countries is almost 19 times the annual global development aid budget[17]. Poor countries of the world are literally the creditors of the rich – a rather opposite reality to what is usually meant by “Third-World Debt”! 

Bizarro is a comic book supervillain created as the mirror-image evil version of SupermanRobin Hood, of course, took from the rich and gave to the poor. Our Bizarro Robin Hood global economy does the reverse.

Brief exposure to chemical toxicants in high concentrations – for example, when applying pesticides using a backpack sprayer and without proper protective equipment – can cause symptoms of acute poisoning including headaches, irritation of skin and eyes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, impairment of the brain and central nervous system, and even death. Chronic exposure to hazardous chemicals – through food and water for example – can also cause serious health problems such as cancer, disruption of the endocrine system, neurological impairment, organ damage, and can harm the immune system, impairing the body’s response to infectious diseases and reducing the effectiveness of vaccinations[18]. These effects can occur even from exposures to very low concentrations of toxicants, such as parts-per-billion or parts-per-trillion levels.

Globally, the costs of chemical pollution are enormous, with healthcare and disability-related productivity loss estimated at US $4.6 trillion per year – over 6% of global economic output[19]! However, chemical pollutants have so far been overlooked in the international development agenda, and pollution control currently receives less than 0.5% of global development spending[20].

Curtailing damage to the environment and human health from chemicals is integral to attaining several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs 6.1 and 6.2 are to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for all by 2030[21]. Other SDGs aim to “reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination” (SDG 3.9), “improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials” (SDG 6.3), and “achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle...and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment” (SDG 12.4)[22].

[Next up: 1.2 Chemical toxicants are overlooked in conventional WASH programming]