Blog | Chemicals in Africa

Vested interests in treaties such as the Minamata Convention on Mercury will protect our children

Source: groundWork - Newsletter June 2015

Globally, researchers are describing a pandemic of childhood developmental disabilities. In the US, where advanced surveillance techniques are well established and sensitive enough to detect patterns over time, the numbers are ringing alarm bells! The U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that between 2006 and 2008 approximately two million more US children were diagnosed with developmental disabilities (including autism, neurobehavioral development disorder and attention defi cit hyperactivity disorder) compared with a decade earlier (1).

While better diagnostics may explain some of this increase, a significant trend emerging from global health research associates exposure to a growing body of better researched, commonly released “neuro” environmental pollutants with this rising trend in childhood developmental disabilities. Chief among these remain exposure to lead (and its compounds still commonly found in many household products), a well-known environmental toxicant that interferes with the normal development of a child's brain and can result in lower IQ, learning disabilities, and behaviour problems like aggression and hyperactivity. However, widespread exposure to pesticides, industrial and vehicle fine particle pollutants, and mercury are increasingly being linked to this trend.

Mercury exposure sources globally include most large predatory fish, some types of air pollution and mercury-containing products commonly found in circulation, including batteries, thermometers and other measuring devises. In artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) communities worldwide, airborne exposure to mercury occurs from burning off the mercury following the amalgamation process. Researchers routinely report pregnant women and women of childbearing age burning amalgam, sometimes because the men refuse to. Approximately 10 – to 15-million people in seventy countries work in the ASGM trade (2). Additionally, chemicals known to be endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) commonly used in everyday household products such as fl ame retardants, cosmetics and everyday plastics can all have adverse impacts on the developing brains of children.

So how does this happen?

During critical stages of development, children's brains are most sensitive to the impacts from these chemicals. Some of these neuro toxic environmental chemicals, such as mercury, cross the placental barriers quite easily and affect the structure or function of the developing brain prenatally and also during infancy. Even very low levels of exposure early in life can have profound and lasting negative effects.

Similarly, researchers have linked an entire class of industrial chemicals called phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.

And like many other industrial chemicals that have raised red flags, many of these chemicals have made it on to the production line and into common, everyday household products without the fundamental basic steps to assess their toxicity to humans having been taken. With phthalates, the research has come before any sort of regulation – companies are not even required to list phthalates on consumer product labels in the global North. However, enough distinct phthalates have been studied to indicate that companies should proceed with caution when using any chemical in the phthalate class, particularly in products for pregnant women or young children who, the research has indicated, are the most vulnerable to the effects of phthalates.

One of the first phthalates to raise a red flag, DEHP, was replaced in hundreds of consumer products with DiNP, only for researchers to discover a few years later that exposure to DiNP is correlated to male genital birth defects and impaired reproductive function in adult males (3).

Globally, the measures currently used to assess chemical risk and set safety standards fall short of protecting children around the world. Especially in the global South, children continue to be exposed to dangerous neuro-toxicants released from products, emissions in the home and from industrial sources. Many examples exist, from informal electronics recycling in Nigeria and Ghana, to massive lead and mercury exposure in many African countries from artisanal small scale mining activity, alongside widespread agricultural pesticide use.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes (4) recently stated that “far more effort and resources should be devoted worldwide to protect people from the negative health impacts of toxic pollution”. This call is made in the context of an estimated 13-million deaths per year being attributed to environmental factors, which amounts to approximately one quarter of the global burden of disease (i.e. all the people who die globally.) Pollution is now thought to be the leading cause of death in low – and middle-income countries, and poor women and children who live and work in the world’s most polluted environments are most affected. Despite this trend, less than 3% of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) proposed program budget for 2016 to 2017 is dedicated to the “Health and Environment” sub-category. “The amount of work WHO dedicates to monitoring and preventing harm from toxic pollution is disproportionately low, given the impacts of pollution on human rights,” the Special Rapporteur warned.

We should be counting the costs as scientists progressively discover how chemical compounds, common in everyday products as well as in indoor and outdoor air pollution, can adversely affect early brain development during these key critical stages of development. Chemicals treaties acknowledge that the foetus is not well protected against environmental chemicals and that neurodevelopment effects are occurring. Nonetheless, countries across the world selectively implement and internalise the provisions that are aimed to protect populations from such impacts. It is thus incumbent on civil society to address and implement real risk reduction and risk management strategies.

Globally, NGOs agree that sound management of chemicals has not been given the priority it deserves. Priority on fundamental issues such as proper labelling and information on chemicals in products is critical for workers and civil society in all countries. Similarly, it needs to be recognised that the phase out of highly hazardous chemicals and pesticides in developing countries is a right of developing countries to protect their populations from large sources of exposure – measures often resisted by large transnational corporations. With the progressive implementation of chemicals treaties, often the simplest means to protect our children is to adopt a cautious approach. Alongside this, countries should integrate and mainstream chemicals management along with their sustainable development goals (SDGs). In particular, those SDGs covering health, water, and sustainable consumption and production are of direct relevance to chemicals and with a direct emphasis on risk reduction can make positive impacts on children’s health.


(1) Elizabeth Grossman, What Are We Doing to Our Children’s Brains? published in Truthout on Feb. 20, 2015

(2) Charles W. Schmidt. (2012) Quicksilver and Gold: Mercury Pollution from Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining. Environmental Health Perspectives • volume 120 | number 11 | November 2012

(3) phthalates-plastics-chemicals-research-analysis

(4)  Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Learn more, visit: http://www. SRToxicWastesIndex.aspx