Chemicals have been responsible for the progressive prosperity of human society. They are utilized in everyday events such as plastic containers to intricate molecules responsible for curing diseases. Since they have become such an integral part of everyday life, we tend to focus on the benefits and disregard the increasingly inevitable problem of chemical waste.
Chemicals, like humans, participate in a life-cycle. At times, they are useful but when introduced to certain external situations, can quickly become intrinsically dangerous or harmful. When used, chemicals react or transform into another by-product which must be systematically dealt with or they will persist and potentially pose a chronic threat to humans or the ecosystem.
This issue concerning chemical waste arises because society faces a large educational gap due to a lack of common knowledge regarding chemical use, handling, safety, and toxicity. People do not concern themselves with chemical toxicity because they do not possess the proper tools, such as classifications, to judge the potential hazards associated with a certain scenario.
Let’s look at something an example prevalent in everyone’s life – water. It is common knowledge that not all water is potable, meaning that humans cannot safely consume certain any and all water. If you bridge the gap, even slightly, between general knowledge and a comprehensive understanding, you discover that there are 1.1 billion people in the world who do not have access to potable water which translates to 1.7 million deaths per year, 90% being children 5 years and younger (WHO/UNICEF). Water pollution is the consequential and inevitable by-product of the growth of the industrial sector, primarily the chemical sector due to waste disposal. This result reflects the lack of preparation and regulation regarding the proper disposal of chemical waste. The industrial sector produces and manufactures goods which can be beneficial but, indirectly, at the expense of others who are not aware of the risks associated with chemical pollution. The regulations and hazard data required to generate a protocol to deal with chemical waste disposal are not expansive enough to thoroughly ensure that chemical waste does not interfere with a fundamental aspect of human life, potable water.
The industrial sector, specifically the chemical sector, is worth billions, if not trillions of dollars composed of some of the world’s most intelligent. What is troubling is that these people do not have an educational gap regarding chemical toxicity, and purposely turn their heads as it may interfere with personal gains since it may not pose an imminent threat. This analogous to treating a common cold before it develops and leads to a more serious medical concern such as pneumonia. Now imagine ignoring this ‘cold’ on a global scale. This where this world is headed if more attention is not given to properly disposing of chemical waste.
An approach to solve this problem would be the implementation of a global classification system applied to an extensive inventory of chemicals to include physical, chemical, and hazardous data. Manufacturers understand their products down to the chemical formulations and will benefit society as a whole to understand any reported hazardous traits among used chemicals. This includes the molecule or compound in question, any reaction intermediate that may occur, or any degradation by-product. Due to the almost infinite amount of chemicals which exist, an issue is that there will never be a complete list of chemicals with unknown hazards to both humans and the environment. Measures have been taken to categorize these by hazard type, including the Globally Harmonized System for Hazard Communication (GHS) but is once again limited to international disparities rather than implementing universal labelling. More specific initiatives include as the European Legislation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) seek to expand the broad chemical inventory and understand the hazardous impact which chemicals have on humans, respectively.
Even if a logbook with chemicals was invented and constantly updated, this is simply the first step.
These restrictions and warnings that reside in the logbook must be applied, regulated, and enforced in the industrial sector. Chemicals, by themselves, already have depth to their handling and hazards but there is another layer that exists when they are mixed and must be cautiously dealt with. The gap I mentioned previously referred to the safety of handling singular chemicals, the future work must develop a model which can estimate chemical hazards as a function of the mixture composition prior to disposal. Chemical toxicity is an increasingly relevant subject as pollution is prevalent throughout the world (Air,water,etc.) and we focus our efforts into providing the industrial sector a toolbox which can be utilized to guide them towards a rigid chemical waste protocol.
WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. “Water for Life: Making it Happen” (2005). World Health Organization and UNICEF.