06 Jun 2019 Story Chemicals & waste

Chemicals and the right to breathe clean air

Chemicals are all around us. They keep our homes clean, produce better goods, improve health care and are major contributors to national and world economies.  As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the sound management of chemicals and waste is becoming ever more important—especially as they can affect air quality. Every year, millions of tons of manufactured chemicals are released into the environment as emissions, water discharges, and hazardous waste. 

Air pollution is caused by harmful particulates and gases released into the air. Sources include factories, cars, open burning of wastes, pesticides and even commercial and household products.

The impacts from the unsound management of chemicals, waste and poor air quality, is taking its toll on the health of the global human population. The harmful impact of small airborne particles, also known as fine particular matter (PM2.5) that can penetrate deep into the bloodstream and lungs, is becoming increasingly clear. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 7 million people die annually from air pollution related diseases.

The global transition towards the sound management of chemicals, waste and clean air for all is not happening swiftly enough to have a truly positive impact on human health and the environment. Breathing clean air and having access to a healthy environment is a right—not a privilege. Reducing the dangers of air pollution can only be achieved if the public, governments and global organizations work together as one towards a chemical-safe world.


What can you do to help reduce air pollution?

Below are four impactful actions to reduce air pollution.

Stop the burning of fossil fuels. The burning of oil, coal, and gas are the main drivers of our current global warming problem. When burned, fossil fuels emit particulate matter as well as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide (NOx), mercury and sulfur dioxide into the air. Air pollution—particularly due to diesel vehicles—is increasingly becoming one of the main causes for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Walking, cycling or using public transportation are good alternatives for cars, whereas coal and gas can be replaced by solar, wind and hydro-power as energy sources.

Reduce intensive use of agricultural chemicals and burning of agricultural residues. Agricultural emissions—notably, ammonia, NOx and nitrous oxide—can have a significant impact on air quality. Whereas methane and nitrous oxide are powerful greenhouse gases, NOx and ammonia forms particulate matter in the air, which can penetrate deep into the respiratory system. Fertilizers used in everyday agricultural activities also include ammonia, urea and nitrates. Eighty per cent of global ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions caused by humans comes from agriculture. In some European countries, over 40 per cent of air pollution-related mortality can be attributed to emissions of nitrogen compounds from agriculture.

Using agroecological alternatives and better practices, such as using fertilizer or manure produced by livestock in the soil—rather than adding the chemical on top of what animals already produce—can reduce overall nitrogen emissions from ammonium and methane produced from agriculture. Moreover, open burning of agricultural residues is a major source of air pollution in developing countries.


Reduce and properly dispose of waste. Roughly 33 per cent of the world’s solid waste ends up in open dumpsites. As urbanization and population growth continue, these dumpsites will increase in size and number. By 2025, municipal and domestic dumps are estimated to account for eight to ten per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Unregulated burning of waste materials such as plastics and batteries in open pits and incinerators are also sources of outdoor air pollution. Around 12 per cent of municipal solid waste is made up of plastic of one kind or another, and 40 per cent of the world’s garbage is burned, according to the study “Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste – A Review.”  The burning of plastics releases toxic gases such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (BCPs) into the atmosphere and poses a threat to vegetation, human and animal health.

Promoting waste reduction and environmentally sound management of waste can help limit harmful emissions. Reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills by avoiding using single use plastic items.   

Be mindful of hazardous chemicals that cause indoor pollution. According to the World Health Organization, around 3.8 million people die each year from exposure to household air pollution. This is often caused by cooking indoor or heating homes with polluting fuels such as wood, coal, dung and kerosene. Cooking and heating with these polluting fuels can produce high levels of indoor air pollution including from fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. 

Other indoor air pollutants include mold, building materials and household products such as perfumes, hairsprays, air fresheners, furniture polish and cleaning solvents. To prevent indoor air pollution, use alternative cleaning products, eliminate the use of air fresheners and candles, avoid burning coal and wood inside and maintain proper ventilation and moisture control.

Working as one

Several organizations and initiatives focus on soundly managing chemicals that directly impact the quality of the air we breathe. The Climate & Clean Air Coalition is a voluntary multi-stakeholder partnership which helps partners and stakeholders create policies and practices that will deliver substantial climate pollutant reductions over the coming decades by enabling action, mobilizing support, enhancing scientific knowledge and increasing the availability and access to financial resources.

The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management is a voluntary policy framework to promote and implement chemical safety globally. It focuses on promoting regulatory and voluntary action by governments and industry with the aim to reduce pollution by ensuring the sound management of chemicals and waste.

UN Environment urges the world to address air pollution by living the 4Rs: reduce, recycle, reuse and recover. Burning less, wasting less, driving less and walking more, as well as adopting clean technologies, are just a few ways we can help to keep our air clean. Governments can also play an important role in the fight for clean air by strengthening their monitoring of air quality and adhering to World Health Organization guidelines, while leading joint actions that integrate financial, environment, health and industrial considerations at national and city level to achieve the sustainable development goals.