Statement by Klaus Toepfer, Executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the occasion of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Coming into Force
17 May 2004 - 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 per cent.
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 which has now entered into force (17 May).
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 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 foot notes 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.
It covers 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 Programme (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.
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 clear and 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-causing potential.
• Exchange of information between developed and developing countries on toxic chemicals and chemical risks supported by training of staff in poorer nations on communications systems such as the Internet.
• National plans to pin point stocks of obsolete chemicals and pesticides supported by 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 industrial accidents including the strengthening of the Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at a Local Level (APELL). Its aims include working with industry, local authorities and communities to minimize the chances of an industrial accident.
• The setting up and strengthening of a truly 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 crack down on smuggling and the trade in illegal or controlled chemicals and pesticides supported by training and finance for people like customs officials in developing countries and help in developing and enforcing national laws.
• Integrating chemical safety into the development assistance and poverty reduction strategies of developing countries and countries with economies in transition.
To fully realize this new “umbrella” approach is going to require political will and, an as yet uncalculated by clearly substantial amount of money. The sums involved are likely to become clearer as we approach the 2006 Governing Council.
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, 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.