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Over the last 150 years, the chemical industry has played a key role in the global economy. The industry's contributions to economic growth, employment, and improvements in life expectancy, health, and living conditions in Western-style societies are widely recognized. Chemicals are a basic building block for nearly all industrial and productive activity, and they appear in millions of chemically formulated products, consumer products, and durable goods. Ninety percent of the approximately 100,000 chemicals produced by the chemical industry and used commercially are made using oil, and in the space of just over 50 years, those chemicals have come to constitute the material basis of society.

Not surprisingly, the global chemical industry is enormous and is expected to continue to grow in the future, concomitant with the expansion of the global consumer and industrial economy. In the United States alone, production and importation of industrial chemicals (not including fuels, pesticides, food additives, and pharmaceuticals) is about 74 billion pounds per day, the equivalent—if converted to gallons of water—of over 1 million gasoline tanker trucks, each carrying 8000 gallons. If placed end-to-end, this number of trucks would extend 10,000 miles; in the course of a year, it would circle the earth about 150 times at the equator. On the current trajectory, global chemical production is expected to double every 24 years into the foreseeable future (Figure 44–1). Indexed to 1995, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) expects non-OECD nations to experience 200% growth in chemical production by 2020 (from US$ 0.5 to 1.5 trillion) compared to 75% growth for OECD countries (US$ 2.0–3.5 trillion). Growth of the chemical industry in the global South will thus outpace its growth in the developed nations of the OECD by a factor of about 2.5.

Figure 44–1.

Growth in chemical production outpaces population growth. Global chemical production is expected to grow 3% per year, while global population will grow 0.77% per year. On this trajectory, chemical production will increase 330% by 2050, compared to a 47% increase in population, relative to year 2000.

In both developing and developing nations, many industrial chemicals come in contact with people through ­exposures that occur in the workplace, in homes, and through air, food, water, and waste streams. Eventually, nearly all industrial chemicals—or their by-products or wastes—enter the earth's finite ecosystems.

Given the size of the chemical industry, the ubiquitous nature of its products, and its continuing global expansion, it is essential that governments around the world take an active role in developing and adopting comprehensive chemicals policies, with the goal of protecting health and ecosystems for both present and future generations. The adoption of such policies is increasingly important among developing nations. With the recent exception of the European Union (EU), however, the complexity, economic importance, and rapid growth of ...

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