Exploring the planetary boundary for chemical pollution
Journal article, 2015

Rockström et al. (2009a, 2009b) have warned that humanity must reduce anthropogenic impacts defined by nine planetary boundaries if “unacceptable global change” is to be avoided. Chemical pollution was identified as one of those boundaries for which continued impacts could erode the resilience of ecosystems and humanity. The central concept of the planetary boundary (or boundaries) for chemical pollution (PBCP or PBCPs) is that the Earth has a finite assimilative capacity for chemical pollution, which includes persistent, as well as readily degradable chemicals released at local to regional scales, which in aggregate threaten ecosystem and human viability. The PBCP allows humanity to explicitly address the increasingly global aspects of chemical pollution throughout a chemical's life cycle and the need for a global response of internationally coordinated control measures. We submit that sufficient evidence shows stresses on ecosystem and human health at local to global scales, suggesting that conditions are transgressing the safe operating space delimited by a PBCP. As such, current local to global pollution control measures are insufficient. However, while the PBCP is an important conceptual step forward, at this point single or multiple PBCPs are challenging to operationalize due to the extremely large number of commercial chemicals or mixtures of chemicals that cause myriad adverse effects to innumerable species and ecosystems, and the complex linkages between emissions, environmental concentrations, exposures and adverse effects. As well, the normative nature of a PBCP presents challenges of negotiating pollution limits amongst societal groups with differing viewpoints. Thus, a combination of approaches is recommended as follows: develop indicators of chemical pollution, for both control and response variables, that will aid in quantifying a PBCP(s) and gauging progress towards reducing chemical pollution; develop new technologies and technical and social approaches to mitigate global chemical pollution that emphasize a preventative approach; coordinate pollution control and sustainability efforts; and facilitate implementation of multiple (and potentially decentralized) control efforts involving scientists, civil society, government, non-governmental organizations and international bodies.

Stockholm Convention

Planetary boundary

Chemical management

Pollution controls

Tipping point

Human health protection

Ecosystem health protection

Chemical emissions

Global threshold

Chemical pollution


Miriam Diamond

University of Toronto

Cynthia A. de Wit

Stockholm University

Sverker Molander

Chalmers, Energy and Environment, Environmental Systems Analysis

Martin Scheringer

University of Bayreuth

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH)

Thomas Backhaus

University of Gothenburg

Rainer Lohmann

University of Gothenburg

Rickard Arvidsson

Chalmers, Energy and Environment, Environmental Systems Analysis

Åke Bergman

University of Rhode Island

Michael Hauschild

Swedish Toxicology Sciences Research Center (Swetox)

Ivan Holoubek

Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

Linn Persson

Masaryk University

Noriyuki Suzuki

Stockholm Environment Institute

Marco Vighi

National Institute for Environmental Studies of Japan

Cornelius Zetzsch

University of Milano-Bicocca

Environment International

0160-4120 (ISSN)

Vol. 78 8-15

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Subject Categories

Environmental Engineering

Other Earth and Related Environmental Sciences

Other Environmental Engineering

Environmental Sciences



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