Knowns and unknowns on burden of disease due to chemicals: a systematic review

Environ Health. 2011 Jan 21;10:9. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-10-9.


Background: Continuous exposure to many chemicals, including through air, water, food, or other media and products results in health impacts which have been well assessed, however little is known about the total disease burden related to chemicals. This is important to know for overall policy actions and priorities. In this article the known burden related to selected chemicals or their mixtures, main data gaps, and the link to public health policy are reviewed.

Methods: A systematic review of the literature for global burden of disease estimates from chemicals was conducted. Global disease due to chemicals was estimated using standard methodology of the Global Burden of Disease.

Results: In total, 4.9 million deaths (8.3% of total) and 86 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) (5.7% of total) were attributable to environmental exposure and management of selected chemicals in 2004. The largest contributors include indoor smoke from solid fuel use, outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, with 2.0, 1.2 and 0.6 million deaths annually. These are followed by occupational particulates, chemicals involved in acute poisonings, and pesticides involved in self-poisonings, with 375,000, 240,000 and 186,000 annual deaths, respectively.

Conclusions: The known burden due to chemicals is considerable. This information supports decision-making in programmes having a role to play in reducing human exposure to toxic chemicals. These figures present only a number of chemicals for which data are available, therefore, they are more likely an underestimate of the actual burden. Chemicals with known health effects, such as dioxins, cadmium, mercury or chronic exposure to pesticides could not be included in this article due to incomplete data and information. Effective public health interventions are known to manage chemicals and limit their public health impacts and should be implemented at national and international levels.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Disease / etiology*
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Environmental Pollution*
  • Epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Mortality*
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Public Health
  • Public Policy
  • Risk Assessment*


  • Environmental Pollutants