The term chemical refers to the elemental composition of a material with a definite chemical structure. The mismanagement and overuse of these potentially lethal materials has degraded the environment throughout the twentieth century. Although the effects of chemicals on our planet have been most observable on a local scale, it is currently a complex international concern that lacks a pronounced solution. Without proper treatment and cooperation among actors, the ramifications of chemical misuse will permanently contaminate our planet.

Becoming an Issue

Chemical pollution was hardly considered an environmental concern until the later portion of the twentieth century upon the release of the controversial publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which exposed the environmental problems of chemical misuse (Carson 1962). Primarily a product of industrial processes and human population growth, chemical emissions have now reached staggering quantities that will continue to rise in the future. Between 1990 and 2004, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States increased by 16 percent (Pew Center on Global Climate Change 2007).

Environmental Consequences

Chemicals are routinely used in agricultural, commercial, and industrial processes. Although society’s current way of life depends on the use of some of these chemicals, their environmental impact cannot be ignored. Most commonly, global public goods such as water, air, forests, and fisheries are degraded by toxic pollutants. Not only can the contamination of these resources affect human health, but the environmental implications are vast and complex. As chemicals are transported through natural systems, they can interfere with common biological processes. As a result, certain materials enhance the proliferation of acid rain, damage the earth’s protective ozone layer, stimulate eutrophication in waterways, and contribute to global climate change. These scenarios often affect ecosystem stability, culminating in the loss and loss of vital human resources.

Health Consequences

In addition to their environmental significance, chemical pollutants pose immediate and direct threats to human health. Chemicals can create permanent neurological, developmental, and reproductive damage to humans (Rodricks 1992). Of these substances, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) may be the most lethal. POPs resist chemical breakdown and accumulate in ecosystems where their toxic effects are magnified (Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants 2001). Exposure to POPs has been directly linked with health hazards including cancer, birth defects, and learning disabilities (Rodricks 1992). Many of the most toxic chemicals are poorly tested, and blame is commonly placed on the shoulders of the government. In a review of 2,863 commercial-scale synthetic chemicals conducted by the U.S. EPA, 43 percent had not been tested for basic toxicity data while only 7 percent had been properly reviewed and tested (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2005).

Global Consequences

The impacts of chemical pollutants are not confined by geographic borders. Rather than only affecting a small region, chemical emissions in one country can diminish the quality of life in other countries. For example, according to a recent study, in some areas of Canada, 75 percent of acid deposition damage comes from U.S emissions (The Green Lane 2005). Creating effective institutions through which states can negotiate and discuss their individual preferences and priorities can offer a solution to current chemical pollution issues. Although incentive programs are certainly a step in the right direction, a global emissions standard may be the true solution to the problem. Without collective action on behalf of all contributing nations, chemical pollutants will continue to pose a threat to the environment and human health.


Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1962.
The Green Lane: Environment Canada’s World Wide Web Site, 15 June 2007).

Pew Center on Global Climate Change,, (accessed 08 July 2007).

United States Government Accountability Office. “Chemical Regulation.” Report to Congressional Requesters. June 2005.

(accessed 10 December 2007). Rodricks, Joseph V. Calculated Risks: Understanding the Toxicity of Chemicals in our Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Stockholm Conference on Persistent Organic Pollutants. “Convention Text”. May 2001. (accessed 10 December 2007).

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