Chemical pollutants of the environment

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Chemical contamination

As modern dependence on chemicals for societal benefits has grown, the potential for widespread pollution or contamination has also increased. There are now some 70,000 chemicals on the commercial market, and many of these are currently used and released into the environment with little or no knowledge of their potential long-range effects. It is estimated that 1,000 new chemical enter the market each year. There are five potential sources of pollution from chemicals: (a) Chemical products themselves, such as CFCs, pesticides and nitrate fertilizers; (b) Hazardous waste and its treatment; (c) Chemical emissions, such as from factories, power plants and automobiles; (d) Accidents, such as the fire in 1986 that destroyed a chemical store in Switzerland belonging to Sandoz; and (e) Transport of chemicals.


Besides those on the market there are about 4 million chemical substances identified. Probably about one million of these are produced each year as intermediates, waste or laboratory chemicals that are not marketed but which may reach the public through contamination. Broad classes of pollutants are antibiotics and hormones use in the production of farm animals; chemical pesticides; nitrate and phosphate fertilizers; industrial liquid wastes; industrial gaseous emissions; industrial solid waste, scrap or process slag; (plastics, heavy metals and other dangerous substances can be released into the environment in gas, liquid or bulk); and some specially toxic substances worth mentioning as a class by themselves such as vinyl chlorides, PCBs, and acrylonitrile.

It was revealed in 1998 that the Israeli El Al cargo jet, that plowed into a low-income housing complex near Amsterdam in 1992, contained not just electronics, flowers and perfume, as originally claimed, but also DMMP, part of a combination of elements used to make sarin nerve gas. It was bound for a biological research institute in Israel. El Al maintained the DMMP was to be used for testing gas masks. DMMP is not considered harmful unless ingested. However, more than a thousand medical complaints from residents in a neighbourhood 12 kilometres east of the airport were reported.

90% of exposure to hazardous chemicals now occurs inside (houses, offices, cars).  This is because indoor air quality is essentially unregulated. One in three people in countries like the USA, Australia and the UK report adverse health effects from exposure to fragrance products.  11% of Australian cannot access a public toilet in which an air freshener or perfumed cleaning product has been used.  There is no legal requirement to disclose the chemical identity of added fragrance ingredients.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
16.10.2021 – 11:02 CEST