To turn the spotlight on a still too underestimated danger, the WWF proposes a new definition to describe the insidious relationship that unites human beings to their activities and to the environment. Recalling that 220 billion tons of chemicals are released into the environment every year and pollution causes over 9 million deaths and that Italy is the first European country for deaths attributable to air pollutionthe environmental association says: “We could call each other Homo Chemicus instead of Homo sapiens sapiens”.
Thousands of chemical substances, both synthetic and naturally present in the environment, coexist with us, underlines the WWF. We find them in the air, in the water, in the soil, in food, in clothes, in utensils, in furniture, in toys, in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Our society would not be the same without them but – despite their usefulness – many can have a negative impact on human health and the environment.
In Europe the air is unbreathable and Italy is among the worst countries
by Cristina Nadotti
The numbers, in addition to those already mentioned, are alarming: globally over 100,000 toxic substances are on the market. In Europe alone, in 2020, over 200 million tonnes of chemicals hazardous to human health and over 50 million tonnes hazardous to the environment were produced and used. Italy, as mentioned, has a terrible record, because in our country smog causes up to 90,000 premature deaths a year.
What are the most polluting chemicals and where are they found?
In the dossier prepared by the WWF it is highlighted that the World Health Organization has identified 10 main chemical substances present in the environment, which are of concern for global public health, including: atmospheric particulate matter (e.g. PM10, PM2.5), heavy metals (e.g. mercury, lead and arsenic), pesticides And persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), benzenes And dioxins. All environments can be a potential source of pollutants: cities, countryside, closed spaces such as homes, schools and workplaces, especially in a context of uncontrolled industrialization and urbanization, demographic growth and intensive use of fossil fuels. We drink, eat and breathe these substances without realizing it.
In the London Underground, fine particulate matter that can reach the blood
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There are some examples mentioned in the dossier: more than 100,000 microplastics enter our body from the air, water and food, a quantity equal to several milligrams a day. In the city we breathe microplastics mainly from tyres, and at home we can inhale microplastics from dust. At the table, on the other hand, we can ingest not only microplastics mainly through seafood, vegetables (up to about 55,000 microplastics from the consumption of fish, molluscs, crustaceans and sea urchins) and water, but also heavy metalswhich are the cause of high disease and mortality rates worldwide.
Hand laundry releases much less microplastics than the washing machine
“The extent of human exposure to microplastics through the diet and the consequences for human health are not yet clear, – specifies the WWF – while as regards heavy metals it is estimated that over 500 million people worldwide are at risk of excessive exposure to, for example, arsenicand that over 900,000 premature deaths each year are caused by lead“.
Another contaminant that we take in through the diet are i pesticides. The use of pesticides in agriculture today is massive and only a very small percentage reaches the target organisms, while a large part is dispersed in the environment and affects non-target species. As a result, we find pesticide residues in the air, water and food.
The consequences of this exposure continue
Many synthetic chemicals cannot be metabolized by the environment, therefore, they remain and accumulate, so much so that chemical pollution from toxic substances and their impact on human health are among the most pressing problems of the last three decades. For this reason, man today is probably the species most exposed to complex mixtures of polluting and contaminating chemical substances, hence the term coined by the association of Homo Chimicus.
Human beings, like the environment, are unable to metabolise many synthetic chemicals to which they are exposed daily and this means that an increasing number of substances are also becoming part of our metabolism. Beyond 400 chemicals or their metabolites have been found in the human body (e.g. urine, blood, amniotic fluid, breast milk, and fatty tissue), suggesting that nearly all populations of the world now have detectable levels of a wide variety of toxic chemicals in the organism. Studies in the EU indicate the presence in human blood and tissue especially some pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, plasticizers and flame retardants.
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Of particular concern is the increasingly frequent occurrence of mixtures of known and suspected harmful substances (above all pesticides, bisphenols, phthalates, PCBs and PFAS) in maternal blood, umbilical serum, placenta, human milk and urine of mothers and infants. These substances can have negative effects on development, reproduction and the immune system both prenatally and later in life, so there is a risk that they may also affect future populations.
The contribution of environmental chemical pollution to the global calculation of diseases is now established: according to the WHO, 22% of diseases and 24% of all deaths in the world are linked to environmental factors, especially pollution. In the last two decades, deaths caused by modern forms of multiple and diffuse pollution have increased by 66%.
Pfas: pollutants are now everywhere, even in rainwater
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“Unfortunately, considering the large number of modern chemical pollutants and their ubiquity in the environment, global data on the burden of disease and deaths attributable to pollution is almost certainly underreported. chemical pollution has been defined as one of the planetary limits not to be crossed in order to safeguard humanity.Today some scientists argue that we have now passed this limit beyond which there is no longer any security for the biosphere and humanity, having environment a cocktail of synthetic chemicals that pervade the whole planet”.
Proposals to safeguard us and the planet
To limit the negative effects of chemicals that are now part of our current lifestyle, WWF promotes:
- there scientific research in the field of toxicology and ecotoxicology to increase knowledge on chemical substances and mixtures present in the outdoor and indoor environment (homes, schools, offices, etc.) and the possible existing alternatives
- the changes in the habits and lifestyles of citizensproviding information on the best choices in the choice and responsible use of products for home and personal care, for cosmetics, textiles, electronic equipment, materials intended for contact with food up to the food itself, furnishings and much more other) to reduce daily exposure to cocktails of substances that can pose a risk to our health;
- L’adoption of appropriate labelling that helps citizens to be aware of the risks and to adopt appropriate preventive measures;
- L’adoption of minimum environmental criteria in Green Public Procurement to limit exposure to hazardous chemicals in the purchase of goods and services in educational, public and health facilities;
- there definition in Italy of a strategy on chemicals that guides our country towards the goal of zero pollution;
- there reduction in the use of single-use plastics and not necessary to eliminate their dispersion in nature and reduce the risk to public health represented by their content of dangerous and harmful chemical substances, primarily for the endocrine system;
- adiet that limits exposure to toxic chemicals especially important for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and children, for example thanks to the consumption of organic products to reduce the pesticide load.
“We cannot forget that pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss are closely linked. – concludes the dossier – Global efforts to combat chemical pollution can and must be synergistic with other global environmental policy programmes, to effect a transition on a rapid and large-scale scale, also in compliance with SDGs 2030. The sound management of chemicals and the prevention of their negative impact on the environment and human health would contribute to the creation of healthy environments and resilient communities, thus obtaining a double benefit for human health and the planet.”