Environmental risks of chemicals

Environmental emissions arising from the use of chemicals vary in impact, depending on the properties of the chemical and on the purposes and methods of its use. It is the responsibility of the environmental administration to monitor, and assess the exposure of ecosystems to chemicals and heavy metals. From the human perspective, particular attention must be paid to the urban environment, to workplaces, and to households.

Means of controlling chemical risks

Risks arising from chemical substances can be mitigated through legislation, financial means, and voluntary action taken by or on the behalf of operators in the sector. Legislation is influenced by national objectives, along with EU law and a number of international agreements that Finland has signed with the aim of reducing chemical hazards.

Environmental risks can be reduced significantly through the right choice of chemical. Under the Finnish Chemicals Act (744/1989), the user of a chemical must always assess whether a harmful substance could be replaced with another chemical or use of a different procedure.

There are specific regulations applying to businesses. The manufacturer or distributor of an environmentally hazardous chemical must ensure that the product is properly labelled. Since 2002, this obligation has applied for mixtures of chemicals as well as substances in their pure form.

National Programme on Dangerous Chemicals

Finland’s National Programme on Dangerous Chemicals assesses the dangers posed by chemicals to individual consumers, the national health, occupational health, and the environment. The goal of the programme is to ensure that by 2020 no chemicals cause a significant health or environmental problem in Finland. The programme takes into account the entire life cycle of chemicals, suggesting risk-control actions particularly for certain aspects of society that previously received less attention.

Limited information on the environmental concentration of chemicals

Relatively little is known about the environmental concentrations of chemicals in Finland, with the exception of so‑called classic environmental toxins (DDT, dioxins and furans, and PCBs) and heavy metals. Many substances end up in nature via the use of household products, whose composition is often relatively unknown.

Some harmful substances reach bodies of water through purified wastewater, as wastewater treatment plants are designed to remove nutrients and suspended solids rather than chemicals. Municipal wastewater treatment plants measure mostly variables related to eutrophication in treated wastewater and sludge, alongside concentrations of heavy metals in sludge. However, substantial amounts of various chemicals are discharged into the municipal sewerage system by private households and by SMEs that are connected to the public system.

In terms even of measured concentrations, load data exist for very few substances. For even these, account is taken of only major point-load sources, such as industrial facilities, and for these establishments too, the content of specific chemicals in each plant’s emissions still remains unknown in most cases. Also, because the concentrations are low, some substance loads are not even measured.

Need for monitoring of harmful substances

European Union regulations and international agreements demand Finland to monitor the environmental concentrations of harmful substances much more extensively than it does now. Of the chemicals for which analysis has been performed so far in the form of surveys only, many surface-treatment and flame‑retardant substances, organotin compounds, and agricultural plant-protection products will come within the scope of monitoring. After this, pharmaceuticals are likely to join the list of substances deemed to require monitoring.

Currently, the point and non-point loads of certain chemicals are estimated through calculations, not measured. Specific concentration measurements are needed to support the data provided by models.

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The Finnish Lapland is renowned for its purity, even if environmental toxins are present at low concentrations in the air, water and living organisms. The main concern in the Arctic region is the long-range transport of substances and increased chemical loading which may take place due to other causes. This is why the monitoring and mapping of hazardous substances must continue in Finland.
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The addition of carbon, which is required as a nutrient by the microorganisms in soil and groundwater, was found to be the most promising remediation method in the remediation of soil and groundwater contaminated with the pesticide atrazine. This conclusion is reached in Aura Nousiainen’s doctoral dissertation, which will be presented for public examination at the University of Helsinki on Friday 13 February 2015.
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Published 2013-11-27 at 12:25, updated 2013-11-27 at 15:52