Wastewater pouring out of sewage pipe in forest surroundings.
​Despite the fact that new chemicals are developing at a rapid pace, there is a lack of sufficient information about many of them.​​
​  Photo: GU

Research on polluting chemicals falling behind

Only a fraction of all the chemicals used by society have been thoroughly studied by researchers. An analysis covering 20 years of scientific publications related to chemical pollution show that the majority of studies have focused on as few as 65 individual chemicals. Meanwhile, the number of chemicals used by society is rapidly increasing.
A team of researchers has analysed 130,000 scientific articles published within the field of environmental pollution research during the last two decades.

“We found that the scientific literature was dominated by a surprisingly small group of chemicals while there is very little knowledge about the many of the other chemicals used by society. It is apparent that the research community needs to catch up with current chemical uses and innovations”, says Erik Kristiansson, professor at the Department of Mathematical Sciences and the main author of the study.

Lack of information 

The analysis of the scientific literature showed that, in the last 20 years, studies have generally focused on a fraction of the total number of chemicals used by society. Of the approximately 20,000 chemicals included in the study, as few as 65 were mentioned regularly.

“Scientific knowledge is an important component in environmental regulation. Today, there is a lack of information on many of the chemicals used by society, including their toxicity and their abundance in the environment. This negatively impacts our ability to assess risks and to take informed regulatory decisions. Both decision-makers and researchers, but also research funding organizations, need to be aware of this problem”, says Kristiansson. 

Despite new chemicals being developed at a rapid pace, there is a lack of information for many of them.

“Since chemicals are used in everything from medicines and pesticides to everyday consumer items such as food, clothing and toys, we have to know that they are not toxic to us humans, or to the environment,” says Thomas Backhaus, director of FRAM and professor in environmental sciences. 

“Furthermore, exposure to chemicals has been linked to a range of health problems, such as cancer, obesity and infertility and also to environmental damages in aquatic ecosystems and on land”, continues Backhaus. 

Change of research focus

The scientific knowledge for some chemicals consists mainly of research performed by companies which is then published in scientific journals. 

“The research focus has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. For instance, we see that interest in pharmaceuticals has increased while interest in biocides has diminished,” says Jessica Coria, researcher in environmental economics at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg and the second author of the study.

“Our conclusion is that the focus of our combined research efforts needs to be reconsidered. A more targeted research approach will be needed to catch up with the constantly growing diversity of chemicals used in society,” says Erik Kristiansson.

The researchers behind the study, which was published in Environmental Science & Policy, are associated with the University of Gothenburg’s Centre for Future Chemical Risk Assessment and Management (FRAM).


Erik Kristiansson, professor at the Department of Mathematical Sciences,
Phone: +46 (0)31-772 35 21, email: erik.kristiansson@chalmers.se
Jessica Coria, associate professor at the Department of Economics,
Phone: +46 (0)31-786 48 67, email: jessica.coria@economics.gu.se
Thomas Backhaus, professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences,
Phone: +46 (0)31-786 27 34, email: thomas.backhaus@bioenv.gu.se

About the research

In addition to Erik Kristiansson and Mikael Gustavsson at the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers, the research team includes economics researcher Jessica Coria at the University of Gothenburg and Lina Gunnarsson, an associated researcher from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. 

Article in Environmental Science & Policy: 
Title: Does the scientific knowledge reflect the chemical diversity of environmental pollution? – A twenty-year perspective
Online publication: https://research.chalmers.se/en/publication/526597

Page manager Published: Tue 03 May 2022.