The large-scale production of chemicals has grown steadily since the middle of the 19th century. Now virtually every man-made product involves the use of chemicals in some manner and new chemicals are being developed every year.
Technically, a chemical substance is a form of matter that has constant chemical composition that results in physical properties that can be measured to characterize it. Chemical substance can also more broadly connote a substance produced by, used for, or related to chemical operations or production. The toxicity of a chemical substance refers to its ability to damage an organ system, disrupt a biochemical process, or disturb an enzyme system. As we scale up production of chemicals, especially those that are toxic, the risk of exposure also grows.

Adverse impacts on human health:
Our production and use of chemicals has been accompanied by the release of many chemicals and chemical by-products into the environment, which has, in turn, resulted in adverse impacts on human health and the environment. Many chemicals and chemical by-products, such as polychlorinated dioxins and furans, have been identified as toxic to humans and wildlife. In fact, exposure to toxic chemicals has been linked to certain diseases in humans, such as asthma, autism, and some types of cancer.
And as an unfortunate consequence, communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples, and low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden of toxic chemical exposures and related negative health outcomes. They are exposed not only to current chemicals through consumer products, industrial polluters, and chemical plants in their neighborhoods, but they are also frequently afflicted by legacy chemicals from prior industrial land uses.
Toxic chemicals threaten our water:
Dangerous toxins like pesticides, hexavalent chromium, and rocket fuel have been found in our drinking water. The USEPA’s Toxics Release Inventory of 2012 reported that facilities in Illinois dumped 6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into our rivers and streams that year, resulting in Illinois being ranked as the 13th worst state in the nation for direct toxic discharges into waterways. One meat processing facility in Hillsdale, alone, dumped 2.5 million pounds of toxic pollution from slaughtered animals into our waterways. These discharges have lasting adverse effects on the health of our water resources, as well as negatively impacting the plants and animals that depend on them.
Toxic chemicals pollute our air:
Scientists estimate that millions of tons of toxic pollutants are released into the air each year. Examples of toxic air pollutants include benzene (found in gasoline); perchloroethylene, which is emitted from some dry cleaning facilities; and methylene chloride, which is used as a solvent and paint stripper by a number of industries. Other air toxics include dioxin, asbestos, toluene, and metals such as cadmium, mercury, chromium, and lead compounds. People and wildlife are exposed to toxic air pollutants by breathing contaminated air, eating contaminated food products, eating fruits and vegetables grown in contaminated soil, drinking water contaminated by toxic air pollutants, and touching contaminated soil, dust, or water.
While some chemicals cause direct adverse affects on wildlife or humans, others cause changes in the environment that present additional hazards—volatile organic chemicals and oxides of nitrogen give rise to tropospheric ozone (smog), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) degrade the stratospheric ozone layer allowing increased ultraviolet radiation to impact on the earth’s surface.
Some types of chemicals that have been shown to pose unacceptable risks to human health and the environment. They include:
  • “Persistent” chemicals degrade very slowly and remain in the environment and organisms for years or even decades, even when released in relatively small quantities.
  • “Bio-accumulative” contaminants are taken up from water or food and are retained by wildlife and humans in their bodies at concentrations higher than the concentrations in their food and water—these chemicals can cause adverse effects when levels become sufficiently elevated.
  • “Bio-magnification” occurs when carnivores at higher levels in the food chain (such as humans) consume contaminated wildlife—they acquire high levels of some chemicals, which can lead to serious adverse effects including birth defects and reproductive failure.

Exposure to chemicals that are persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic can occur over extended time periods, affecting generations of humans and wildlife.

Specific contaminants of concern include:
  • Pesticides – designed to be toxic to a target organism, but often kill other organisms as well. The insecticide azinphos-methyl, for example, an organophosphate used to control insects such as biting mites and aphids, is also very toxic to fish and birds. Moreover, many of the compounds used today are toxic at very low concentrations.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) – primarily used to make plastics, BPA has been found to be a hormone disrupting chemical associated with an increased risk for numerous adverse effects, such as: cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, breast and prostate cancer, reproductive dysfunction, metabolic dysfunction and diabetes, and neurological and behavioral disorders.
  • Mercury – a persistent and toxic pollutant that accumulates in the environment, in wildlife and in humans. Lowered intelligence, impaired hearing and poor coordination are some of the effects in children with elevated mercury levels. People are most frequently exposed to mercury through the consumption of contaminated fish. Human exposure can also occur by inhaling vapors from spilled mercury or leaking equipment.
Current Laws and Regulations Regarding Toxics
Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act:
The primary federal laws designed to regulate or restrict—among other things—the release of toxic chemicals into our water and air. While the USEPA establishes minimum standards, most provisions of these Acts are designed to be administered by the states.
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA):
Provides the USEPA with authority to establish requirements and restrictions relating to chemical substances, specifically. Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides. Deeply flawed, TSCA has remained unchanged by U.S. lawmakers since its enactment in 1976. One of TSCA’s major weaknesses is that nearly all the burden lies with the EPA to prove the dangers of particular chemicals, not on the chemical industry to prove the safety of their products.
Illinois Environmental Protection Act:
Establishes a process for giving Illinoisans access to important information on the hazardous chemicals in their communities, and requires annual reports to be filed by companies that release any of over 600 listed toxic chemicals to the environment. This reporting covers routine releases that occur as a result of normal business operations within a calendar year, and non-routine or accidental releases of toxic chemicals—the report covers releases to the air, water, and land, as well as transfers of wastes to off-site treatment, storage and disposal facilities.
Illinois Lawn Care Products Application and Notice Act:
Requires an applicator for hire to post signs when applying pesticides to lawns and to provide advance notice to neighbors of adjacent property when requested to do so. Additional provisions require schools and daycare centers to establish either a parent registry or universal notification, with a 4-day advanced notice of applications.
There is, however, an unfortunate loophole in the Act–in 1995 special interest groups (including lawn care chemical applicators) pressured lawmakers to suspend home rule laws for pesticide use, specifically. This prevents local governmental units from enacting more restrictive and protective ordinances for pesticide use in their communities. A bill to overturn this provision was introduced during the 2014 legislative session, but died in committee.
Household Hazardous Waste (HHW):
The IEPA coordinates one-day HHW collections each year in the spring and fall. Agency contractors then assure that all wastes are properly containerized and safely transported to their ultimate destination. Funded by statewide fees on landfilled nonhazardous solid wastes, participation is free to the public. The first of these collections began in 1989. Since then, 401,350 households have participated in 449 events, with more than 78,100 drums of material collected. Naperville and Rockford each have long-term collection sites that provide area residents with ongoing collection of HHW.
Several laws have been enacted in Illinois that regulate mercury-containing products by limiting or prohibiting mercury content with the purpose of eliminating non-essential uses of mercury, thereby reducing the potential for release during production, use and disposal. These laws apply to the following: thermometers; thermostats; novelty products; K-12 school purchasing; electrical switches and relays; automobile switches; cosmetics; wheel weights and balancers; and other mercury devices (e.g., barometers, flow meters).
Mercury Thermostat Collection and Recycling Act:
This Act, passed in 2010, requires thermostat manufacturers to establish collection programs for recycling mercury-switch thermostats when they are taken out of service.
Toxin-Free Toddler Act:
Enacted in 2012, this law prohibits the sale of children’s food or beverage containers that contain bisphenol A (BPA). Children’s food or beverage containers means “an empty bottle or cup to be filled with food or liquid that is designed or intended by a manufacturer to be used by a child” less than 3 years of age. In accordance with a provision in the Act itself, it was later repealed after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration final rule-making prohibited the use of polycarbonate resins in infant feeding bottles and spill-proof cups.
  • Uniform Hazardous Substances Act of Illinois: Regulates the handling and disclosure of toxic chemicals.
  • Illinois Chemical Safety Act: Establishes a system of organized responses at the state and local level to releases of chemical substances into the environment.
  • Cadmium-Safe Kids Act: Restricts the amount of cadmium in the paint or surface coating of children’s jewelry.
Our Vision for the Reduction of Toxic Chemicals in Illinois
Notice and transparency requirements for pesticides should be increased:
Home rule authority to regulate pesticides should be revisited and ideally, returned to local communities. The removal of home rule authority to regulate pesticides has been a barrier in the ability of communities to protect their residents.
In addition, the reforms Illinois has enacted to give sensitive users additional information about the use of pesticides in schools and neighboring properties should be increased to protect vulnerable neighbors and give Illinoisans the right to know.
Illinois should put together a plan to protect pollinators and other important wildlife species from pesticides and other chemicals:
In addition to habitat development, Illinois should develop a plan to reduce pesticide use in pollinator habitat areas to be at the forefront of the re-population of these important species.
Illinois should ensure Environmental Justice in decision making about siting and use of toxics:
Illinois policies should protect vulnerable groups. Effective reform should contribute substantially to reducing the disproportionate burden of toxic chemical exposure placed on low-income people, people of color, and indigenous communities.
Additionally, all chemicals should be assessed against a health standard that protects all people and the environment, especially the most vulnerable sub-populations, including children, workers, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations.
Illinois should support federal and any possible state actions to immediately act on the worst Chemicals First and Promote Safer Alternatives:
Persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) are uniquely dangerous. PBT’s to which people are exposed should be phased out of commerce except for critical uses that lack viable alternatives. Exposure to other toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, that have already been extensively studied should be reduced to the maximum extent feasible. Our communities cannot wait on yet another study on these proven poisons. Green chemistry research should be expanded, and safer chemicals favored over those with known health hazards.

Partners for Parks and Wildlife

Partners for Parks and Wildlife (PPW) is a grassroots coalition that is dedicated to secure and increase funding for open space and park acquisition, natural area preservation, wildlife habitat protection and recreational opportunities in Illinois.

Learn More About Climate Change

The U.S. EPA’s website on climate change was once a great resource for basic scientific information on the topic and we look forward to the day that it is again. Until then, the City of Chicago is making sure its citizens have access to research and information.


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