Mammoth task ahead in curbing chemical pollution, says UNEP

Posted: 17 May 2004

Welcoming the coming into force today of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS), Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), warned that this would do nothing to deal with the 69,000 other man-made substances already in use and the thousands more which enter the environment every year.

"How do we ensure that these are safe and sound and produced and handled in a responsible way?" he asked. It was a crucial question given that much of the manufacturing of chemicals is increasingly shifting to developing countries, he added.

Commenting on the 'mammoth international effort' needed, he said it was likely that other persistent organic pollutants would join the banned list under the Stockholm Convention. And this would be supplemented by the Rotterdam Convention, which has also just come into force. This requires exporters of hazardous substances to seek the approval of the importing country before a shipment can be allowed.

"However, arguably the most significant development is yet to come, namely a new global effort known as the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)."

By 2006, when UNEP holds a Special Session of its Governing Council, the building blocks of this radical new approach to chemicals should be finally in place, he said.

"Governments should then have the blueprint for realising the target, agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg two years ago, which calls for 'chemicals to be used and produced in ways that lead to a minimization of significant adverse effect on human health and the environment' by 2020."

Future goals

He said the approach, guided by existing initiative such as Inter Governmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), has a long list of goals. Some of these are:

  • The establishment of a universally accepted labeling scheme, the so-called Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.

  • Harmonized risk assessments of chemicals for their possible effects in areas such as reproductive health and cancer.

  • Exchange of information between developed and developing countries on toxic chemicals and chemical risks supported by training of staff in poorer nations.

  • National plans to pinpoint stocks of obsolete chemicals and pesticides with funds and technologies for developing countries to safely dispose of these.

  • The introduction in developing countries of national systems for swiftly and effectively preventing and dealing with industrial accidents.

  • The setting up and strengthening of an international network of poisons centres to deal with cases of chemicals poisoning and to raise awareness of the risks of misusing chemicals and pesticides.

  • A global crackdown on smuggling and the trade in illegal or controlled chemicals and pesticides.

  • Integrating chemical safety into the development assistance and poverty reduction strategies.
To fully realize this new "umbrella" approach is going to require politicalwill and, and a lot of money, Toepfer said.

"What is clear, is that the benefits of this new approach will potentially have far reaching impacts.

"Indeed chemicals cut right across our sustainable development and poverty reduction aspirations as outlined in the UN Millennium Development Goals and the WSSD Plan of Implementation.

"Maximising the benefits and reducing the health and environmental impacts of modern chemicals and pesticides, including during their production and disposal, will not only help us meet the targets and timetables relating to the delivery of safe drinking water to billions.

"They will also play an important role in helping to restore and arrest the alarming loss of wildlife on the land and in the world's rivers, seas and oceans," he concluded.

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