Humans use over 100,000 different chemical elements and compounds, including lead, mercury, cadmium and persistent organic pollutants. If not managed properly, chemicals can have severe impacts on human health, causing acute poisoning, cancers, birth defects, neurological disorders, hormone disruption and other grave illnesses. Lead poisoning in children costs an estimated US$977 billion dollars per year—equivalent to 1.2 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product—by lowering the IQ of children in low- and middle-income countries. In adults, lead is responsible for 4 per cent of ischemic heart disease and 6.6 per cent of strokes. Chemical pollution also depletes the ozone layer and disrupts delicate species and ecosystems.

UNEP hosts the secretariat of the Minamata Convention, which addresses the adverse effects of mercury, as well as the Ozone Secretariat of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, which regulates substances that deplete the ozone layer. OzonAction—a UNEP-led initiative—works with governments and industry in developing countries to help them phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.

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Exposure to lead is responsible for 4% of ischemic heart disease and 6.6% of strokes.

Together with the World Health Organization, UNEP led the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint, whose aim is to eliminate the use of lead in paint by the end of 2020. UNEP also leads the Global Alliance for the Development of Alternatives to DDT, a partnership to scale up best practices and accelerate the development and deployment of alternative pest control. Through the international Flexible Framework Initiative for Addressing Chemical Accident Prevention and Preparedness, the organization supports activities to raise awareness and build the capacities of communities, industry and governments about emergency prevention and preparedness.

UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook identifies key trends and policy analysis to inform international discussions on chemicals and waste management. The second edition of the Outlook was published in 2019.