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11 September 2012

UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook: Towards Sound Management of Chemicals

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released its Global Chemicals Outlook: Towards Sound Management of Chemicals, that included a warning that coordinated action by governments and industry is urgently needed to reduce the growing risks to human health and the environment posed by the unsustainable management of chemicals worldwide.

In search for economic development and better livelihoods, the world has become increasingly hungry for and dependent on chemical products, such as fertilizers, petrochemicals, electronics and plastics – a trend that will continue in the coming years. According to the report, global chemical sales are expected to increase by around 3% annually until 2050, while chemical production will likely grow with an average of 40% in Africa and the Middle-East and with 33% in Latin America (between 2012 and 2020).

However, there is also growing evidence that this growing demand is feeding unsustainable practices, leading to adverse affects and hindering development progress towards key development targets. The report cautions that poor management of chemicals is incurring multi-billion dollar costs worldwide, most of which have to be borne by social welfare systems or individuals. The report supports its findings with worrying figures. For example, it notes that costs incurred due to asbestos and contaminated drywall total over US$125 billion worldwide. Moreover, it finds that poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to over one million deaths annually and 14 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years.

Despite some progress in developing national and international capacities for managing chemicals safely and soundly, the report informs that more than three quarters of e-waste produced in Europe and the United States goes still unaccounted for; and of the estimated 140,000+ chemicals on the market today, only a fraction has been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.

Particularly developing countries have to bear the consequences – such as major economic burdens caused by chemical hazards – of the steady shift in the production, use and disposal of chemical products from developed countries to emerging and developing economies. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the costs of poisonings from pesticides are estimated to exceed the total annual amount of overseas development assistance given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS, the report warns. Water supply, food security, peoples’ well-being and worker productivity are increasingly under threat. According to the report, bathing and drinking water used by villagers near an oil extraction site in Ecuador contained levels of petroleum hydrocarbons up to 288 times higher than European Community standards.

UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook thus calls for sound chemicals management, as this is the only way to reduce these financial and health burdens, while improving livelihoods, supporting ecosystems, reducing pollution and developing green technology. It recommends that sound chemicals management is comprehensively integrated into national social and economic plans; and producers, manufacturers and importers should play an active role in developing safe chemical management policies with governments. Governments, particularly in developing and emerging countries, should start focusing on preventing risks and promoting safer alternatives and innovation, rather than remediating hazards only. Examples of such alternatives are the use of more sustainable agriculture practices, such as integrated pest management (IPM) and better end-of-life chemicals management (e.g. recycling). Financial support from developed countries and international donors is however required.

Additionally, countries, corporations and civil society should join efforts and develop coherent approaches and assessments for monitoring exposure to chemicals, as well as the environmental, health and economic effects. They should adopt and implement legal instruments that define the responsibilities of the public and private sector for chemicals control; and develop an appropriate baseline of health and environmental effects for chemicals in commerce. Finally, the report recommends that civil society organizations should participate actively in decision-making on chemicals safety at all levels.

To access the UNEP Synthesis Report for Decision-Makers - Global Chemical Outlook: Towards Sound management of Chemicals, click here.

For more information on UNEP’s Chemicals Branch, visit: www.unep.org/themes/chemicals/

Looking ahead
The Third Session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM3) will take place in Nairobi from 17-21 September 2012. In addition, UNEP is currently facilitating the intergovernmental negotiations on a legally binding instrument on mercury, to be concluded in 2013.

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