University of Gothenburg
Since chemicals travel the world, chemicals are a global concern
Europe imports goods like clothes and electronics, and exports eg pesticides. Chemicals travel the world and are therefore of global concern.
Photo: Pixabay

What is a chemical?

A chemical is the tiniest form of matter and includes any liquid, solid or gas. Chemicals are everywhere, in everything. The air we breath, the water we drink, our bodies, food, and the clothes we wear are all made from chemicals. In each living organism, you can find about 10 000 different chemicals. In our daily lives, we use about 100 000 different chemicals or more.

Are chemicals dangerous?

Chemicals act the same, whether created by nature or by humans. Industrially produced chemicals enable good things like healthcare, food production, consumer products and infrastructure. The problem is that some chemicals are toxic and interfere with natural chemical processes in nature and within our bodies.

Read a scientific statement on advancing the assessment of chemical mixtures and their risks for human health and the environment [link to Springer].

How do we know if a chemical is toxic?

Altogether, we are aware of roughly 100 000 000 different chemicals - and each and every hour, about 40 new chemicals are discovered. Not all of these are dangerous but one challenge is that only some 70 chemical substances are restricted and monitored in the EU. The others are unknown to us. Another challenge is that chemicals are treated one at a time when, in reality, the nature and humans are exposed to an unknown cocktail of chemicals.

Since nobody has the full understanding of the effects of all these chemicals - and what happens when we mix them - the FRAM Centre focus on risk assessment and management strategies to address the exposure to mixtures.

Read more about our research on chemical risk assessment and management strategies.

How to become a chemical smart consumer

Chemicals that affect the environment and our health can be found in everyday consumer products, e.g. in food packaging, cleaning products, textiles and shoes, electronics, or in old plastic parts.

If you want to make conscious and chemical smart choices in your everyday life, the Swedish Chemicals Agency has put together consumer advice (in Swedish only unfortunately).

In the video "Chemicals make us sicker, fatter, poorer", Dr Leo Trasande says 99% of us are affected by endocrine disruption chemicals and low levels of exposure matters. He also says medical conditions like obesity, ADHD, diabetes, breast cancer and testicular cancer are all related to such chemicals.

Lead is one of ten chemicals of major public health concern according to WHO, says Sara Brosché in the video "No safe limits for lead exposure". She also says that lead damages the brain irreversible and the damages cannot be treated.




REACH is a European Union regulation concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals. Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will allow their safe handling, and to register the information in a central database in the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
Read more about REACH on the ECHA website.

Find the list of substances restricted under REACH on the ECHA website.

Navigate to video: Chemicals make us sicker, fatter, poorer
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Chemicals make us sicker, fatter, poorer
Navigate to video: No safe limits for lead exposure
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No safe limits for lead exposure

Swedish households emit >60 000 tonnes chemicals per year

We have predicted emissions of chemicals from households into wastewater based on consumption patterns from multiple data sources. All in all, 2007 different chemicals were included. The result shows that Swedish households emit 62,659 tonnes per year – or 18 g/person and day. 

Read the full study: Estimating the release of chemical substances from consumer products, textiles and pharmaceuticals to wastewater

Photo: Igor Ovsyannykov via Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Djedj, Pixabay

Chemicals and the Global Goals

In 2015, world leaders agreed to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs). These goals are set to create a better world by 2030.

Chemical development plays a critical role in almost all the goals, but they play a dual role. On the one hand they are helping us to achieve those goals, like using fertilizers and pesticides to reach the SDG2 "Zero hunger". On the other hand, they are a risk for goals like SDG 3 "Good health and well-being", SDG14 "Life below water", or SDG15 "Life on land".

Chemicals are mentioned in SDG 12 "Sustainable consumption and production", target 12.4: By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

The Global Goals as a starting point for discussion

Do we need a new international Sustainable Development Goal about chemicals, similar to the Swedish goal of a “non-toxic environment”? The video "Chemicals - an ignored sustainable development goal" is a shorted version, recorded at the International Science Festival in Gothenburg 2019. The experts that are participating in the video are Anna Lennquist from ChemSec, Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg, Magnus Nydén from Nouryon, and FRAM researchers Thomas Backhaus and Åsa Arrhenius from the University of Gothenburg.

In the video from the FRAM seminar "Time to reflect on a chemical-safe world", Prof. Åke Bergman addresses chemicals in relation to the complex grid in which they play a role in the development of sustainability. The presentation is related to the majority of the SDGs in which chemicals are of key importance. Åke Bergman is a Senior professor at Stockholm University, Guest professor at Örebro University and Chair Researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai.


Navigate to video: Chemicals, an ignored sustainable development goal?
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Chemicals, an ignored sustainable development goal?
Navigate to video: Time to reflect on a chemical-safe world
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Time to reflect on a chemical-safe world