Chemical pollution – the next global crisis

Hand turning pollution page revealing nature landscape. Hand turning pollution page revealing nature landscape.

Chemicals are everywhere – they keep our watches ticking, and our cars running. They are in the medicines we buy, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear.

In some ways, chemicals are physical manifestations of progress, human development, and scientific, technological, and agricultural innovation. The use of nitrogen in fertilizer allows farmers to grow more significant quantities of food. However, with the prevalence of chemical pollutants across multiple facets of daily life, we have reached a point where our planetary boundaries are being tested; where the overuse of certain chemicals is causing more harm than good. When mismanaged, toxic chemicals cause an alarming number of premature deaths, and wreak havoc on both human and planetary health.  Exposure to toxic chemicals stunts life expectancy and impacts human wellbeing. Together with climate change and nature loss, pollution is a major hurdle to ending poverty on a livable planet.

"Together with climate change and nature loss, pollution is a major hurdle to ending poverty on a livable planet."

New research points to the enormity of the dangers posed by chemical pollution. This evidence indicates that in 2019, exposure to lead caused the premature deaths of more than 5.5 million people; 90% of whom died in lower- and middle-income countries.  The research also finds that, in the same year, children younger than five lost 765 million IQ points due to lead poisoning. This loss of human capital has huge consequences for quality of life, learning and school outcomes, productivity, and, ultimately, economic development and growth. Estimates are that the economic cost of health damages amounted to $6 trillion in 2019, equivalent to 6.9% of global GDP. 

"Estimates are that the economic cost of health damages amounted to $6 trillion in 2019, equivalent to 6.9% of global GDP."

Nitrogen-based fertilizer, which is often used to enrich the nutrients in agricultural soils, is another example of chemicals having an impact on both people and planet. Only 40% of nitrogen is actually absorbed by crops, with the remaining 60% transferred into the air or leached into water. This, in turn, can create large dead zones in bodies of water, where wildlife is decimated. Also, when nitrogen-based fertilizers such as ammonia are volatilized into the air, they can transform into secondary fine particles and nitrogen oxides that are partially responsible for millions of premature deaths caused by air pollution. In addition, a part of the nitrogen in the air becomes nitrous oxide; a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Chemicals pollution is interconnected with the climate crisis, as climate change can in turn amplify the amount of unsafe chemicals in the environment.   

Other chemicals in our day-to-day lives are equally concerning. Cadmium, a chemical found in batteries, electronics, and paint – and also in some foods – affects cardiovascular health and can cause kidney failure and cancer. Asbestos, known for causing lung cancer and banned in most high-income countries, is still commonly used as insulation material in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

The impacts of chemical pollution indicate the sounding of yet another alarm bell, reminding us that we cannot simply develop now and clean up later.  Here are three actions policymakers can take to improve the management of chemicals: 

  1. Measure what needs to be managed. There is no uniform approach to measuring chemical pollution at present. The Bank has proposed guidelines for collecting and analyzing samples of chemicals in the environment or from local produce and for recycling used lead acid batteries and for artisanal and small gold mining. However, governments, academia, and development partners need to come together around global protocols to measure chemicals in the environment and in people. 
  2. Adopt the “precautionary principle,” where the default is to prove a chemical’s safety before use. This approach requires policymakers to adopt a healthy dose of skepticism toward new chemicals.
  3. Enact evidence-based policy frameworks. This can take the form of rigorous environmental and safety standards, making polluters pay, and removing environmentally harmful subsidies, on which governments currently spend trillions each year.

For our part, the World Bank is committed to partnering with our client countries to ensure that workers and vulnerable communities are being protected from the dangers of chemical pollution. In Iraq, the World Bank is helping to manage the pollution from hazardous chemicals in conflict-induced contaminated sites through the removal of persistent organic pollutants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In Ghana, the Bank is working with the government to promote sustainable agricultural and small-scale mining practices with a view to improving the health of people and their environment.

For the sake of a truly livable planet, one that supports the health of both people and the environment on which they depend, we must act faster and more decisively on the pollution crisis. 


Richard Damania

Chief Economist, Sustainable Development Practice Group

Ernesto Sanchez-Triana

Global Lead for Pollution Management and Circular Economy, World Bank

Johannes Heister

Senior Environmental Specialist, World Bank

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