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close this bookFact sheet No 087: The International Programme of Chemical Safety - Revised March 1998 (WHO; 1998; 3 pages)

Fact sheet No 087: The International Programme of Chemical Safety - Revised March 1998


The total number of chemicals on the market now stands close to 100,000. The value of the total global annual production is about 1,5 trillion US dollars. Out of thousands of chemicals that are produced experimentally each year, a staggering one thousand eventually make it onto the market.

The Programme for the Promotion of Chemical Safety (PCS) is the WHO programme responsible for implementation of the International Programme of Chemical Safety (IPCS) on behalf of its Cooperating Organizations: the International Labour Office (ILO), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), established in 1980.

Since that time, the IPCS has evaluated several thousand chemicals. In particular, it has produced more than 1000 toxicological evaluations of food additives and contaminants, and 220 pesticides have been assessed for residues in food. More than 120 Poisons Information Monographs, which contain information on dangerous chemicals with particular emphasis on their toxicological properties, the medical effects and the appropriate patient management, have been finalized.

International Chemical Safety Cards, which provide information for workers who handle chemicals in the workplace or on the shop floor, have been produced in several languages for some 1300 commonly-used chemicals. The WHO Recommended Classification of Pesticides by Hazard and Guidelines to Classification have been adopted by the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. Risk assessments of 190 so-called priority chemicals, from arsenic to xylenes, have been published.

WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality are updated every few years. A three-volume publication examines microbiological, biological, chemical, and radiological aspects of drinking-water. It evaluates 36 inorganic constituents, 27 industrial chemicals, 36 pesticides, four disinfectants and 23 disinfectant by-products.

IPCS audience: government officials and regulatory authorities; research and university scientists; public at large; plant workers; shop foremen; transport workers; agricultural workers; customs officials; emergency response officials; police; fire; plant medical staff; nurses; hospitals; poisons centres; safety officers; and industrial hygienists.

As its first objective, the IPCS prepares evaluations of the risk to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals.

How are priority chemicals selected?


• An evaluation of scientific information leading to the conclusion that the substance may present a hazard for human health and/or the environment.

• The possible use, accumulation or degradation of the substance shows that there may be significant exposure to man and/or the environment.

• The size and nature of the populations at risk (both human and other species), and the risks to the environment, should be taken into account.

• The substance should be of interest to several countries, where the need for an evaluation is not satisfied by current scientific documents prepared by other bodies.

To protect the health of the consumer

, acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels are established for intentional and unintentional food additives, pesticides, and veterinary drugs. Ingestion of these substances is deemed to be safe if the ADI is not exceeded.

The population groups mostly affected by chemicals are poor, illiterate people with little or no access to appropriate training or basic information on the risks posed by chemicals to which they are exposed directly or indirectly every day. Although both men and women are exposed to the health risks related to the use of chemicals in the rural environment and to the chemicals used in cottage industries and in the home, women’s health can be particularly affected by chemicals due to the gender differences. Another population group particularly affected by chemicals are infants and children, who are recognized as being more susceptible to a variety of chemicals, such as heavy metals and several persistent organic pollutants.

Some of the main obstacles identified to sound management of chemicals in countries are: a fundamental lack of knowledge of the risks that many chemicals pose to human health and the environment; a lack of capability and capacity, particularly in developing countries, to manage chemical risks; a lack of technical means to assess the local risks from chemicals and of adequate administrative infrastructure for implementing chemical safety programmes; poor discharge and disposal practices of chemicals giving rise to air, water and soil pollution and food contamination; inadequate information for users of chemicals, especially insufficient internationally harmonized labelling of chemicals; inadequate enforcement of regulations; lack of means of coping with chemical accidents, including the treatment of victims and the subsequent rehabilitation of the environment; and a lack of specific research on national or local chemical problems.

Chemical disasters

The worst technological disaster in modern history occurred at Bhopal, India in December 1984, when over 200,000 people were exposed to a cloud of 40 tons of methylisocyanate over a period of 90 minutes. 8000 people died, survivors have been found suffering from chronic effects on the lungs and eyes years after exposure.

Massive releases of chemicals into the air occur in fires. The emissions from warehouses, factories, human dwellings expose large numbers of people to smoke and fumes carrying pyrolysis or combustion chemicals, affecting millions of people every year, and resulting in a high number of deaths from smoke inhalation rather than from direct flame contact.

Airborne exposure may also be the result of such natural phenomena as volcanic eruptions or gas bursts. Volcanic eruptions are similar to industrial emissions, except that the release of toxic gases and ashes covers extensive areas. The gas burst from Lake Nyos in Cameroon in August 1986 killed more than 1700 people and a large number of animals and, although the precise origin of these events and their real effect on health remains difficult to understand, it is believed that the carbon dioxide from a lake volcano was one of the lethal gases released.

New synthetic materials based on polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride and other chemicals have dramatically increased the toxicity of smoke whose composition varies significantly depending on the materials involved, the temperature and the amount of oxygen available. Burning of chemicals produces a wide range of toxic products. For example, the combustion of polyvinyl chloride produces more than 75 toxic products, including hydrogen chloride, phosgene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Chemical mass poisonings involving food and beverages may result from accidental or fraudulent contamination in the manufacturing process, or during transportation, packaging or storage. In some developing countries, cases of collective poisonings are relatively common due to absence of, or weak regulations, inappropriate quality controls, poor storage and limited transportation capacities.

Pesticides remain the most hazardous chemicals prone to cause epidemic incidents of poisoning, especially in developing countries.


For further information, journalists can contact Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 2543. Fax (41 22) 791 4858. E-Mail:

All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page

© WHO/OMS, 1998

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