The global cost of poor chemical management is high but industry argues report presents an incomplete picture

Pollution from poorly controlled chemical production processes is costing the world billions of dollars

Governments and industry worldwide must urgently address the management of chemicals in order to curtail the escalating heath and environmental risks associated with the widespread production, use and disposal of chemicals, warns a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Global Chemicals Outlook report paints a bleak picture of global chemicals trends. It reveals that the growth in the international chemical industry – which has gone from a value of $171 billion (£105 billion) in 1970 to $4.12 trillion (around 2400 times greater) in 2010 – and a lack of sound management, particularly in developing nations, poses a serious threat to people’s health and the environment, as well as increasing financial burdens.

It comes in preparation of the third International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM-3) to be held in Nairobi this week. The report also follows renewed commitments at the Rio+20 summit in June to prevent the illegal dumping of toxic waste, develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals and increase the recycling of waste.

Among some of the statistics in the report are that poisonings from a selected number of chemicals, including lead and pesticides, cause an estimated 964,000 deaths worldwide per year (1.6% of all deaths per year) and 21 million disability-adjusted life years. Of the estimated 140,000+ chemicals on the market today, many prevalent in consumer goods, including electronics and toys, only a fraction has been thoroughly evaluated to determine their safety and effects on the environment and on human health.

Shared concerns

‘Communities worldwide – particularly those in emerging and developing countries – are increasingly dependent on chemical products, from fertilisers and petrochemicals to electronics and plastics, for economic development and improving livelihoods,’ says UN undersecretary general and UNEP executive director, Achim Steiner. ‘But pollution and disease related to the unsustainable use, production and disposal of chemicals can hinder progress towards key development targets by affecting water supplies, food security, well-being or worker productivity,’ he adds.

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said that it shared UNEP’s concerns, particularly in developing countries. As a result it is working through the International Council of Chemical Associations on initiatives like Responsible Care to improve chemical management processes. The ICCA will be showcasing a new programme on improving storage of chemicals in Africa at ICCM-3 and is working to address chemical legacy issues in countries like Ukraine and Mozambique.

However, the ACC says it is concerned by ‘serious shortcomings’ in the report. It points to a lack of data that undermines the report’s conclusions saying that ‘the impacts of chemicals are not distinguished from other environmental factors, resulting in unreliable conclusions’. They add that the report focuses on the negative impacts of the industry and ignores the social and environmental benefits, such as helping to provide clean water and delivering medicines.

The report acknowledges that many governments and corporations already have appropriate laws and regulations. Nevertheless, due to the variety and complexity of chemicals manufactured today, and the increasingly elaborate global chemical supply chains and waste streams, there are serious gaps and inconsistencies in national and international policies and corporate practices.

As a result, concerns are mounting over the ability to achieve the Johannesburg goal set in 2002 by the UN member states that, by 2020, chemicals will be produced and used in ways that minimise significant adverse effects on the environment and human health.

Highly recommended

‘The report is a great summary of the current state of global chemicals industry policy and management and it definitely highlights the right recommendations,’ says Sonja Haider at ChemSec, an environmental charity based in Sweden. ‘To achieve the 2020 goals these recommendations must be implemented immediately. We only have eight years.’

The report outlines 26 recommendations that should help policymakers to achieve the 2020 goals, which the report says could generate significant economic benefits because poor management of chemicals is incurring multi-billion dollar costs worldwide that are being paid by social welfare systems or individuals.

Among the recommendations, Haider thinks one of the most important is to make more information publically available. ‘We need more transparency and information for companies to come up with better chemicals and to achieve safer chemical management. If people know what’s in a product they can make an informed choice to buy another product and then it’s a lot easier to phase out hazardous chemicals.’

Realistically, however, Haider thinks it is unlikely the 2020 goals will be met, particularly due to the long and costly processes involved in banning chemicals and creating alternatives. She suggests that it’s almost impossible to ban any hazardous chemicals that are currently used in high volumes. ‘So far we are going in the right direction but we need another hundred years to really get rid of the most hazardous stuff and have sound chemical management.’