Toxic hazards

Toxic hazards topic cover illustration

Agrochemicals, health and environment – directory of resources

The directory provides links to web-accessible resources in categories of relevance to policy-making. Links to WHO/UNEP portals are in Section 10. Links to other organizations, e.g. development agencies, academic/research institutes and civil society, are in Section 11.

Policy Brief – agrochemicals: linking health and environmental management

Unintentional poisonings kill an estimated 355 000 people globally each year (1). In developing countries – where two thirds of these deaths occur – such poisonings are associated strongly with excessive exposure to, and inappropriate use of, toxic chemicals. In many such settings, toxic chemicals may be emitted directly into soil, air, and water – from industrial processes, pulp and paper plants, tanning operations, mining, and unsustainable forms of agriculture – at levels or rates well in excess of those tolerable to human health (2,3,4).

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that by the year 2020, nearly one third of the world's chemical production will take place in non-OECD countries and that global output will be 85% higher than it was in 1995. The shift of chemical production to poor countries may increase related health and environmental risks (5).


Good management, use, and disposal of agrochemicals – particularly pesticides – is an an important health and environment issue in developing countries – where economies may be heavily reliant on agriculture. The issue is a focus of this section on toxic hazards.

deaths from poisoning
In developing countries, deaths by unintentional poisoning may be strongly associated with inappropriate use and poor environmental management of toxic chemicals, including pesticides.

Acute exposure to pesticides can lead to death or serious illness (6). Chronic pesticide exposure is most often a problem in the occupational setting, particularly among poor rural populations where men, women, and children all work and live in close proximity to fields and orchards where chemicals are applied and stored (4,7).

Long-term exposure to pesticides can increase the risk of developmental and reproductive disorders, immune-system disruption, endocrine disruption, impaired nervous-system function, and development of certain cancers. Children are at higher risk from exposure than are adults (6,7,3,2).

Pesticides, when not judiciously used, may disrupt natural biological pest control mechanisms. More vigorous pest attacks may result, along with heavier chemical use, and increased health exposures. Pesticides, as well as fertilizers, can infiltrate water sources – contaminating drinking water and animal species, e.g. fish, upon which humans rely for nutrition. Such contamination can lead to a range of secondary public health impacts (7,8).

Taking action

  • IN THE FIELD: Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies can reduce the use of agrochemicals, improve management, and optimize ecosystem mechanisms for pest control/soil enrichment – simultaneously protecting both farmers and the environment.
  • AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL: policies to improve regulation and control of pesticide sale, distribution, and use; health care systems to identify, treat, and monitor cases of pesticide poisonings; and educational/advocacy tools to inform the public as well as agriculture and health-care workers about health risks and best practice use of agrochemicals – all are important.
  • AT THE GLOBAL LEVEL: implementation of global conventions on the management of highly toxic chemicals, including certain pesticides, from production to disposal stages is also critical. These include: the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals in International Trade, and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (9).

  • The world health report 2003 – shaping the future. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2003.
  • Yáñez L et al. Overview of human health and chemical mixtures: problems facing developing countries. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2002, 110(6):901–909.
  • Human development report – consumption for human development. New York/Oxford, United Nations Development Programme, 1998.
  • Toxics and poverty: the impact of toxic substances on the poor in developing countries. Washington, DC, World Bank, 2002.
  • OECD environmental outlook for the chemicals industry. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Environment Directorate, 2001.
  • Public health impact of pesticides used in agriculture. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1990.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/United Nations Environment Programme/World Health Organization. Childhood pesticide poisoning: information for advocacy and action. Geneva, United Nations Environment Programme, 2004.
  • The state of the environment: freshwater. GEO-2000: global environment outlook. Nairobi, United Nations Environment Programme, 1999.
  • Persistent organic pollutants: a legacy of environmental harm and threats to health. Washington, DC, World Bank, May 2003 (Environment Strategy Series, No. 6).