Last updated: 10 Jan 2023

Chemicals are an integral part of everyday life and they are a major contributor to world economies. Yet many of these substances can also harm human health and the environment. Their sound management is essential to avoiding risks to human health and ecosystems and substantial costs to national economies. Home of several international organizations and multilateral environmental agreements on the topic, Geneva is a major global hub of the governance of hazardous substances.

Chemicals Around Us

An estimated 350,000 chemicals and mixtures of chemicals are registered on the global market, most of which where developed in the past few decades. Many of these substances remain unidentified as they are classified as confidential business information or are poorly described. A large numbers of these chemicals are known to threaten human health and the environment. Exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, plastic additives, radioactive waste, and other toxic substances and leakage of these substances into the environment is causing severe harm to people’s health and infringing on their human rights.

Chemicals in your home

The special briefs Invisible news give an overview of the hidden hazards in everyday objects, and also the safer alternatives which exist for safeguarding your household, your health, and the environment. These papers were jointly produced by the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS), the Minamata Convention, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Chemicals and Health Branch ahead of the 4th UN Environment Assembly.



Most of the daily products we use contain chemicals which serve to achieve a wide variety of properties. Cosmetics, toys, clothes, electronic appliances and home goods, are only a few areas where chemicals of concern have been found in everyday products. Chemical additives in plastic products have also appeared as an important point in the debate around plastic pollution and its impacts on people and nature.

Impact on vulnerable populations

While chemical exposure can pose a risk to all, it is also known to affect people differently. Exposure to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances often affects the most vulnerable populations, among them people living in poverty, indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, and minorities. Women and children are also among the most exposed to toxic chemicals. Thus, human-rights-based and gender-sensitive approaches are highly relevant to sound chemicals management.

Chemicals in Plastic

As global attention toward the impacts of plastic pollution is growing, the presence and impacts of the chemical additives contained in plastic has also been received increasing scrutiny. While most of these chemical components remain unknown or understudied, those for which scientific information is available have often been found to be toxic. In particular, a growing body of evidence points to the health risks posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) added to plastics.

Issues of Concern

In 2020, the UN Environment Programme published an assessment report on the issues of concern, which reviews the latest scientific evidence on the health and environmental effects of these key challenges. This report aims to inform and support decision making at UNEA and other international forums working towards sound chemicals and waste management. The issues of concern were identified by the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), and are as follow:

  1. Chemicals in products
  2. Endocrine disrupting chemicals
  3. Environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants
  4. Hazardous substances in the life cycle of electrical and electronic products
  5. Highly hazardous pesticides
  6. Lead in paint
  7. Nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials (nanomaterials)
  8. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

International Collaboration for a Toxic-free Planet

Providing a non-toxic environment for all has been a core priority of environmental governance since its foundations. The first Principles of both the 1972 Stockholm and 1992 Rio Declarations focus on the human right to a safe and clean environment. The Stockholm Declaration describes “the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality…”, while the Rio Declaration states that humans “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.  The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals reiterated the importance of taking action to prevent and reduce pollution in order to protect human health and the environment.

Over the past decades, multilateral cooperation on the issue of chemicals has been increasing, notably through the adoption of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) on the matter. Many relevant organizations in this regard are based in Geneva (see section below).

Role of Geneva

Geneva is a global hub for the governance of hazardous substances, and thus is actively working to reduce the environmental and health risks from chemicals.

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions

The BRS conventions promote the sound management of chemicals and waste to prevent and minimize significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. They address respectively transboundary movements and management of hazardous wastes (Basel), persistent organic pollutants (Stockholm) and international trade of certain hazardous chemicals (Rotterdam).

Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP)

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) is a collaborative body made up of more than 60 members and dozens of observers that advocates for resources and solutions to pollution problems.

International Labour Organization

ILO aims to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards, including in the area of chemical exposure and health risks in the workplace.

Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC)

IOMC is a cooperative agreement among FAO, ILO, UNDP, UNEP, UNIDO, UNITAR, WHO, World Bank and OECD. Its objective is to strengthen international cooperation in the field of chemicals and to increase the effectiveness of the organisations’ international chemicals programmes.

Minamata Convention on Mercury

This international treaty regulates anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds, with the aim to protect human health and the environment.

Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)

SAICM is a global policy framework hosted by UNEP to foster the sound management of chemicals.

UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch

The Chemicals and Health Branch of UNEP work closely with governments, industry, and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste.

United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

UNITAR Chemicals and Waste Management Programme supports governments and stakeholders to strengthen their institutional, technical, and legal infrastructure and capacity for sound chemicals management. UNITAR is part of IOMC.

Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights (SR Toxics)

The SR Toxics is an independant expert mandated by the Human Rights Council to help States, businesses and other stakeholders adopt solutions to the human rights issues related to exposure to harmful substances.

World Health Organization

Through the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), WHO works to establish the scientific basis for the sound management of chemicals, and to strengthen national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety.

Past GEN Events


Geneva Toxic Free Talks | 21 September

Health, Chemicals, Plastics & a Non-Toxic Circular Economy

Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues & BRS COPs Side Event | 9 June 2022

Chemicals, Waste and Biodiversity

CBD Side Event | 27 March 2022