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A Toxics-Free Future

Working Groups

IPEN's Working Groups discuss specific chemical safety themes to develop IPEN’s policy positions and contribute to related on-the-ground projects and activities. IPEN’s Working Groups are noted below.

Chemicals in Products (CiP)

Harmful chemicals in products like children's toys, textiles, jewellery, electronics, furniture and others have become a global problem through international trade. Scientists have linked chemicals in products to impairment to the reproductive system, increased risk of certain types of cancer, asthma, and developmental disabilities.

IPEN's work on Chemicals in Products relates to the Stockholm Convention and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Dioxin, PCBs & Waste

Dioxin and PCBs were included in the original “dirty dozen” chemicals of the Stockholm Convention- chemicals so dangerous that there was global agreement that their elimination needed to be of the utmost priority.

PCBs are used in industry as heat exchange fluids, in electric transformers and capacitors, and as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, and plastic. They are toxic to fish, causing spawning failures at low doses or killing them outright at higher doses. Humans exposed to PCBs through food contamination have reported fatigue, nausea, and vomiting, and PCBs contamination has also been linked to developmental delays and behavioral problems. PCBs suppress the human immune system and are listed as probable human carcinogens. They also contribute to reproductive failure and suppression of the immune system in various wild animals. 

The Stockholm Convention website states: “Dioxin is produced unintentionally due to incomplete combustion, as well during the manufacture of pesticides and other chlorinated substances.” “Dioxins have been associated with a number of adverse effects in humans, including immune and enzyme disorders and chloracne, and they are classified as possible human carcinogens.” 

IPEN's work on Dioxins, PCBs and Waste relates to the Stockholm Convention.

Electronic and Electrical products (e-products)

The growth in consumption of electronic goods has resulted in large volumes of electronic waste (e-waste) in developed countries. E-wastes contain many toxic substances, including heavy metals such as lead, nickel, chromium and mercury, and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and brominated flame retardants. All contribute to a variety of serious health problems.

Much of the e-waste generated in developed countries finds its way to developing countries either as scrap or as secondhand computers, which quickly become waste. The export of old computers to 'bridge the digital divide' is often being used as used as an excuse to obscure the fact that this doubles as a toxic waste pipeline to some of the poorest communities and countries in the world. According to estimates, between 50% and 80% of e-waste collected for recycling in developed countries each year is being exported. Much of this trade is illegal under the regulatory provisions in the country of origin.

The lack of adequate infrastructure in developing countries to manage these wastes safely encourages the continuation of the present practice in which these wastes are burnt in open air or dumped into sewers, rivers or in the ground. While only a limited percentage of the worldwide population is covered by any kind of hazardous waste policies or measures, nearly the entire world is affected both in terms of environmental impacts and its health consequences towards its population.

In addition, it is vital to consider the entire lifecycle of electronic and electrical products to further encourage and promote green design (upstream), and worker health (midstream).

IPEN's work on E-Products relates to the Stockholm Convention and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals, or chemical mixtures, that interfere with normal hormone action. Hormones and their signaling pathways are critical to the normal functioning of every tissue and organ in both vertebrates and invertebrates. Humans and wildlife are exposed to complex mixtures of hundreds of EDCs. The adverse effects that are increasingly linked to exposure to chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties include: effects on reproduction, such as infertility and reduced semen quality and quantity; breast, mammary, testicular and prostate cancers; type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; neurobehavioral outcomes; and thyroid and immune system dysfunction. Young children, particularly unborn and newborn infants, are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of EDCs.

IPEN's work on EDCs relates to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Heavy Metals

Lead: Lead is a highly toxic heavy metal that is found in many products around the world, including everyday products in our homes and workplaces. Exposure to lead damages our health and specifically affects children's brains. Even small amounts of lead can damage a child's development, causing learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

The World Health Organization states that: 'Too much lead can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, and can cause high blood pressure and anemia. Lead accumulates in the bones and lead poisoning may be diagnosed from a blue line around the gums. Lead is especially harmful to the developing brains of fetuses and young children and to pregnant women. Lead interferes with the metabolism of calcium and Vitamin D. High blood lead levels in children can cause consequences which may be irreversible including learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma and death.'

Mercury: Mercury is a highly toxic natural element that is released into the environment by volcanic eruptions, and which naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, often in the form of mercury salts such as mercury sulfide. Elemental mercury can be produced for human use from an ore called cinnabar, and also as a by-product from the mining and refining of metals such as copper, gold, lead, and zinc. Mercury can also be recovered by recycling operations and is sometimes removed from natural gas or other fossil fuels. When mercury enters the aquatic environment, microorganisms can transform it into methylmercury, a mercury compound that is more toxic at low doses than elemental mercury.

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapors are especially harmful because mercury in these forms more readily reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys and has been shown to affect a developing fetus, even months after the mother's exposure. The harmful effects that can be passed from the mother to the fetus include brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures, and the inability to speak. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems in their nervous and digestive systems and kidney damage. Adults who have been exposed to mercury have symptoms such as irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems. Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects such as lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.

IPEN's work on Lead relates to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

IPEN's work on Mercury relates to the Mercury Treaty.


The term 'nanotechnology' describes materials, systems and processes that exist or operate at the extremely small scale of a few hundred nanometres or less. To put a nanometre in context: a strand of DNA is 2.5nm wide, a red blood cell is 7,000 nm and a human hair is 80,000 nm wide.

Nanomaterials are already used in a wide range of domestic, industrial and food products such as food additives, fuel catalysts, sports goods, specialty building equipment, electronics, household appliances, sunscreens and other products. There is uncertainty regarding the health impacts of nanoparticles. Substances that pose no risks in larger particle form can be toxic when occurring as nanoparticles. Surveys show that many companies do not conduct risk assessments and there is no requirement to make public any safety data that industry does generate. In vitro studies have shown that manufactured nanoparticles, which are in widespread commercial use (including zinc, zinc oxide, silver, and titanium dioxide) pose new toxicity risks. Carbon nanotubes cause asbestos-like pathogenicity and the onset of mesothelioma in test mice. A small number of clinical studies suggest that nanoparticles and small microparticles that are not metabolised can over time result in granulomas, lesions (areas of damaged cells or tissue), cancer or blood clots. There is also evidence from animal studies that some nanoparticles can cross the placenta, posing particularly significant risks to developing embryos. Some nanoparticles have been shown to be toxic to environmental organisms and to transfer across species, indicating a concerning potential for bioaccumulation.

IPEN's work on Nanotechnology relates to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

New POPs

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are organic chemical substances that have certain characteristics. They:

  • persist in the environment;
  • travel long distances via air and water;
  • are toxic; and
  • bioaccumulate in living things.

The Stockholm Convention on POPs does more than address the original 'dirty dozen' POPs chemicals. As a "living treaty," it provides the opportunity for Parties to the Treaty to submit additional, new chemicals to the POPs Review Committee (POPRC) for review. Should the POPRC find that the submitted chemicals meet the particular qualifications that denote a POP, the POPRC can recommend that the chemical be considered (at a Conference of the Parties) for inclusion in the Treaty.

IPEN's work on New POPs relates to the Stockholm Convention.

POPs Pesticides

Pesticides are chemical preparations used for destroying plant, fungal, or animal pests. They can also kill or seriously harm animals that were not the intended target, such as birds, fish and humans. Some POPs pesticides may affect the human immune system, and are classified as possible human carcinogens. Incidents of pesticide poisonings are reported regularly throughout the world.

Nine POPs pesticides were included in the Stockholm Convention’s original “Dirty Dozen.” POPs pesticides are considered to be more dangerous than other pesticides due to their POPs characteristics.

IPEN's work on POPs Pesticides relates to the Stockholm Convention.

Toxic Fracking

A multitude of different chemicals are used in the drilling and extraction (hydraulic fracturing) of coal seam gas (coal bed methane), shale gas and other forms of unconventional gas, a process that is also known as "fracking."

Many of these chemicals have not been assessed to determine whether they are safe for use in fracking operations. Fracking chemicals are complex mixtures of different chemicals, which increases their risks. They are being used in very large volumes and unknown concentrations for purposes they were never intended for. Chemicals such as ethylene glycol, formamide, naphthalene, ethoxylated nonylphenol and sodium persulfate are commonly used in fracking mixtures.

Whether these chemicals stay underground or are bought back to the surface and placed in evaporation ponds, there are significant risks of pollution to waterways, the atmosphere and surrounding communities. Additionally, some of the chemicals being used have been linked to cancer and birth defects, while others damaged the hormone system of living things and affected aquatic species at very low levels.