Crédito: Fabricio Van den Broeck.
Global Crusade Against Toxic Chemicals
Por Klaus Toepfer
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which entered into force on May 17, will put the brakes on the most toxic substances around the globe. But the best efforts are yet to come, writes the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in an exclusive column for Tierramérica.
Each year around 1,500 new chemicals are marketed, joining the around 70,000 already in existence.
Over the next decade and-a-half the global production of chemicals is set to increase by a hefty 85 percent.
There will be many new and novel compounds that will bring important and welcome benefits to many areas of life including agriculture, industry and health care.
However, if the past is our guide, some seemingly benign products may have side effects that may pose threats to the wider environment and human health.
Such was the case with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), fluids used in such products as electrical and transmission units.
When they were invented in the 20th century, few if any could have known they would eventually be linked with skin conditions, liver damage and cancer.
Who would have known that, decades later, they would turn up in the breast milk of Inuits living hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where the fluids were made.
Fortunately PCBs, along with 11 other toxic substances collectively known as the "Dirty Dozen", have been served notice under a new international agreement called the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which entered into force May 17.
Governments across the world have wholeheartedly put their political and financial muscle behind a reduction and elimination of nine pesticides, two by-products of incineration and PCBs.
One of the pesticides, DDT, has been given a stay of execution because of its importance in fighting the mosquito that carries the disease malaria.
However, some of the 500 million dollars pledged for eliminating the Dirty Dozen, is going towards finding safer alternatives for fighting malaria including better insecticides as well as treatments and a vaccine.
So future generations can look forward to a world in which at least these chemicals and pesticides are footnotes in the history books.
But what about the other more than 69,000 existing substances and the thousands yet to come? How do we ensure that these are safe and sound and produced and handled in a responsible way?
It is a particularly crucial question given that much of the manufacturing of chemicals is increasingly shifting to developing countries.
It is a mammoth task but one which the international community is starting to address.
We now have the Stockholm Convention and over the coming years it is likely that new persistent organic pollutants will join the banned list.
Another international agreement, the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, has also just come into force, covering a list of hazardous chemicals and pesticides and requires exporters 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 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) holds a Special Session of its Governing Council, the building blocks of this radical new approach to chemicals should be finally in place and ready fully implement.
Governments should then have the blue print for realizing 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.
Among the SAICM goals are the establishment of clear and universally accepted labeling scheme, harmonized risk assessments of chemicals for their possible effects in areas such as reproductive health and cancer-causing potential, exchange of information between developed and developing countries, and national plans for safe disposal of obsolete chemicals.
Also planned are the introduction of national systems for preventing industrial accidents, setting up a truly international network of poison centers, a global crackdown on smuggling of illegal or controlled chemicals, and integrating chemical safety into the development assistance and poverty reduction strategies.
To fully realize this new "umbrella" approach is going to require political will and, an as yet uncalculated by clearly substantial amount of money. 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 United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the WSSD Plan of Implementation.
For maximizing the benefits and reducing the health and environmental impacts of modern chemicals and pesticides will not only help us meet the targets and timetables on the delivery of safe drinking water to billions, they will also help to arrest the alarming loss of wildlife on the land and in the world’s rivers, seas and oceans.
* Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).