Chemicals of concern are a growing issue for human health and pollution. In the last few decades, local governments and international institutions have developed regulations to control the use and management of chemicals. Let’s explore how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address this critical issue.
In “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, Member States of the United Nations re-confirmed to “reduce the negative impacts of urban activities and of chemicals which are hazardous for human health and the environment, including through the environmentally sound management and safe use of chemicals, the reduction and recycling of waste and the more efficient use of water and energy”.
In March 2021, Australia established a national standard to manage the environmental risks of industrial chemicals. The Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management Standard (IChEMS) will provide a registry system for Australian industries to understand and make informed choices about chemicals and their management.
Businesses, industries, community organisations and not-for-profit organisations are also addressing hazardous waste and chemicals of concern.
Under SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being, target 3.9 states, “by 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination”.
GECA specifically addresses target 3.9 in several of its standards by:
• Restricting the use of volatile organic compounds;
• Limiting heavy metals in final products;
• Preventing the use of harmful ingredients such as carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins;
• Restricting fragrances and enzymes; and
• Ensuring workers and suppliers through the supply chain can expect fair pay, equal opportunity, and a safe working environment.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one of the main culprits behind Sick Building Syndrome, where occupants complain of headaches, fatigue and other symptoms that disappear after leaving the building. The health issues caused by VOCs in indoor environments depend on the amount of VOCs present in the air, the length of time they are present, and how frequently people are exposed to them. People with allergies and asthma are particularly at risk.
VOCs are present in many products such as paints, adhesives, personal care products, cleaning products, carpet and furniture. VOCs can also be present in coatings of products and can trigger respiratory irritation, allergies, headaches, and asthma.
For example, if a new carpet comes with a strong smell, that could indicate the presence of VOCs, which affect indoor air quality and can be hazardous for human respiratory health. These VOCs can be present in synthetic fibres, the underlay, and even the adhesives used to keep components together. The off-gassing of such compounds can continue for years. Sometimes VOCs can be present and toxic even when there is too little to give off a smell.
Certain substances or compound classes, including carcinogens, have been identified as particularly harmful to human health. Toxic heavy metals and their compounds such as lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, cobalt, tin and antimony are also detrimental to the health of manufacturing staff and users of the finished product.
For example, some conventional cleaning products can harbour ingredients that cause a range of adverse effects on health, ranging from mild (such as minor skin irritation) to very serious (such as being a potential carcinogen). Chemical treatments and dyes used in carpets or textiles can also be harmful to human health. Stain-repellent and fire-retardant treatments typically contain a class of compounds called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, found in measurable levels in human blood and breast milk. They’ve been linked to thyroid and hormone disruption, and other chemicals such as brominated flame retardants have been linked to cancer.
Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is a particularly common VOC found in adhesives and resins, despite its toxicity to humans. Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and lithopone are a few examples of compounds often found in adhesives. The production of these compounds uses large amounts of energy, generates high volumes of waste, and results in air and water emissions.
Another ingredient to look for, particularly in cleaning products marketed as antibacterial or antimicrobial, is triclosan. Some studies have shown that exposure to high levels of the compound is associated with interference with certain hormones in animals, including estrogen and thyroid hormones. Triclosan has also been linked to the growth of liver tumours in mice and the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, representing a potential public health risk.
The potential health impacts don’t end there. Those are only a few examples of hazardous substances found in products that impact human health.
GECA standards include criteria that strictly restrict the VOC content in products, minimising the effect on human health. GECA standards also ban known endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens or teratogens, and Substances of Very High Concern listed on the REACH Candidate List. For example, our Panel Boards standard ensures that such substances are chemically bound in the finished product to mitigate its release and environmental pollution upon disposal by landfill or incineration.
Each material of concern used in a product has its specific criteria and impacts to consider. GECA standards address the potential environmental, health, and social impacts while ensuring that the product is fit for purpose.
Addressing chemicals of concern impacts human health, which relates to SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being. It also reduces water pollution, providing better water quality as per SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. And reduces chemical waste in the environment as mentioned under SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production.
Under SDG 6, target 6.3 states that “by 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally”.
Under SDG 12, target 12.4 states that “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 minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment”.
At GECA, we are committed to continuous improvement, including reviewing and updating our lifecycle ecolabel standards to ensure they reflect market capability and the best outcomes for people and the planet. Discover more about how our team of experts has integrated relevant SDGs into all our standards.