Industrial society has developed in the Baltic Sea region for almost 150 years. The smoking chimneys of factories were first seen as a sign of progress and a promise of future well-being. In the former socialist countries development of heavy industry was a main concern up to the time of Soviet Union breakup. In the West, not only heavy industry but also production of consumer items were important, and the affluent society developed.
It was not until the 1960s that industries were generally connected with pollution and threats against the environment and man. Chemicals in emissions to the air, effluents to water, and substances polluting soil were shown to cause ecological damage and human health problems. Initially, the immediate surroundings of factories were a concern. Later, it was understood that entire regions and in fact the whole planet had been affected by toxic chemicals.
In this chapter we will look closer on industrial production and its environmental effects, and especially on the major groups of toxic chemicals. Industrial production is a very complex chemical activity. It is man's ability to produce an almost endless variety of chemicals with novel and wonderful properties that is the root of the chemical pollution problem. Today, there are about 70,000 different chemicals on the market in Europe. Earlier, only the beneficial properties of these chemicals were investigated. Their behaviour in the environment was seldomly understood, nor examined.
Pesticides were invented to fight some of man's worst diseases such as malaria, and they were intentionally made to be toxic. One of the first and most successful pesticides was DDT, invented during World War II. DDT was also the first substance to be connected to far-reaching ecological damages. DDT stays in the environment for a long time, it is persistent; it accumulates easily in fat tissues in animals, called bioaccumulation; and its concentrations in tissues increased along food chains, a process called biomagnification. DDT is an early example of a persistent organic pollutant, POP.
Many technically very useful substances turned out to be dangerous in the same way. The polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, were used in large amounts in e.g. electric equipment or building materials just because it was so stable. But it accumulated in fish, was traced in mothers milk, and almost made the grey seals in the Baltic Sea extinct. Use of PCBs has been illegal since the 1970s or 1980s, but large amounts continue to leak from the technosphere. Similar compounds, such as flame retardants, leak from all kinds of electronic equipment and end up not only in Baltic herring but also in every day food such as meat and milk.
In addition to these groups of chemicals are a whole series of contaminants in technical products. Worst among them are the dioxins and the dibenzofurans, among the most toxic substances ever made. All these chemicals are organic compounds containing chlorine, bromine, or fluorine atoms so-called halogens.
Use of the substances mentioned was made illegal in the Baltic Sea region in the 1970s. They can, however, reach the Baltic Sea region from other parts of the world and also from deposits in local society.
Emissions from industry are increasingly better controlled, but leakage from consumer products of all kinds, from households and other sectors of society, in particular industry itself, is still very large. In the Baltic Sea region the annual use of materials, the material flows, amounts to about 50 tonnes per capita. This large flow of natural resources, a large part of it originating from fossil fuels, is not sustainable and has to be reduced. Most importantly, substances not compatible with life processes need to be phased out.
Authorities use a systematic approach to risk assessment for chemical products and risk management strategies have been developed for good management of chemicals. New strategies for chemical industries are developing and the option of sustainable chemistry is slowly emerging.