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At the Crossroads for Global Chemical Safety

By Baskut Tuncak

Baskut Tuncak, Staff Attorney

Next week, negotiators from over 150 countries and other stakeholders will convene in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the future of global chemicals management.  These critical negotiations come at decisive juncture for the Strategic Approach to Chemicals Management (SAICM), with only eight years left on its ambitious mandate to ensure sound chemicals management—eight years in which developing regions face rapidly increasing risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.  A recent report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Global Chemicals Outlook (GCO), highlights the global nature of the chemicals industry and chemical safety.  The GCO highlights three factors responsible for increasing the vulnerability of people living in developing economies to chemical exposure.

First, the report projects that the output of developing regions and countries with economies in transition will overtake developed regions in terms of output towards the middle of this decade.   Following a blistering pace in the last decade, developing regions are projected to have another decade of very rapid expansion.   Projections for growth in chemical production in Asia-Pacific (46%), Africa and the Middle East (40%), and Eastern Europe (35%) dwarf projections for traditional leaders in North America and Western Europe (25%).

Second, the report cites the increasing penetration of chemical intensive products into developing economies.  Consumption of a wide-range of everyday products by consumers and businesses increases the presence of hazardous chemicals in everyday products.  In addition to exposure resulting from domestic consumption and disposal, the trade in waste disproportionally burdens developing regions, which  have become  major destinations for the recycling and disposal of consumer goods from developed regions, such as electronics.

Third, the UNEP Global Chemicals Outlook cites the increased emissions from industrial sectors.  From the upstream sectors of mining and oil/gas extraction to the downstream manufacture of everyday consumer products,  chemical emissions present unique challenges to prevent harm throughout the economic value chain.

These trends highlight the extreme vulnerability of people, wildlife and the environment around the world, especially when considered along with  inadequate chemical safety laws in developed and developing nations alike, and the continued increase in global trade flows..  Chemical management is a global issue that warrants strong international action to create a level playing field for businesses and provide consumers with the safe products they increasingly demand.

Ensuring sound chemicals management is also a sound investment.  The legacy of chemical mismanagement has been very costly for workers and businesses.  The UNEP Cost of Inaction report calculates that the cost of lost work days, medical treatment from pesticide poisonings in just sub-Saharan Africa amounted to $4.4 billion US in 2005.  Overseas Development Assistance to sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 stood at $10.3 billion US – and the report acknowledges that this is an underestimate, as it does not include other adverse effects or other chemicals.

Adopted in 2006, SAICM sets a global goal of achieving the sound management of chemicals worldwide by 2020 and creates a policy framework for achieving that goal.  Unfortunately, financial resources have not been proportionate to the ambition of this goal.  With only eight years remaining to fulfill the current mandate, and limited progress to date, representatives from governments, industry and civil society will gather for the third meeting of SAICM’s governing body, the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM3), to negotiate SAICM’s role in fostering sound chemicals management globally.  CIEL will be negotiating among governments, private industry and international organization for meaningful action to be taken on the following issues:

  • Nanotechnology :  ICCM3 will negotiate whether to add nanotechnology to the Global Plan of Action (GPA) for SAICM implementation, and will also negotiate further action on nanotechnology as an Emerging Policy Issue under SAICM.
  • Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals  (EDCs): SAICM stakeholders who met in Serbia last November failed to reach consensus on whether to include EDCs as an Emerging Policy Issue.  At ICCM3, participants will decide this issue and consider other actions that could be taken in the next three years for the sound management of these chemicals.
  • Finances:  Financial resources provided for global chemicals management fall far short of what is needed.  SAICM, despite the scope and ambition of the “2020 goal” is the least funded of all major chemicals and waste agreements.  Disagreement over SAICM financing delayed discussions last November; tense, contentious and critical negotiations are expected in Nairobi.
  • Future of Emerging Policy Issues:  In 2009, ICCM2 selected four Emerging Policy Issues for increased global attention:  Lead in Paint, Chemicals in Products, Electronic Products Throughout their Life Cycle, and Nanotechnology.  ICCM3 will negotiate future work on these issues.

Our future posts will explain in greater detail what is at stake in each of these topics, and the outcomes of ICCM3.  Check back regularly and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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