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Speech by Achim Steiner, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum 2009

28 May 2009 - Honourable ministers, distinguished guests from industry, business, academia and civil society, ladies and gentlemen,

The chemical agenda has always been high on the political, environmental and social agenda of the Nordic countries-it reflects the reality that unique but also vulnerable ecosystems in this region are magnets for pollutants often generated hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

The nature of that pollution is also sobering for this region-many of these chemicals and harmful substances build up in the fats of marine mammals upon which indigenous peoples in the Arctic and sub-Arctic depend for food, sustenance and other nature-based products.

Thus governments, cities and communities in the far North have a raised consciousness of the chemicals agenda.

But Ladies and gentlemen,

I sincerely believe that your chemicals agenda is now becoming everyone's again and is returning to international stage.

In part because the science, rapidly evolving in the research institutes outside the public eye, is re-emerging with new and sobering findings.

New findings on familiar chemicals, new findings on their break-down products, new findings on new chemicals.

New findings on the scale and the extent of their impact on human health, not least on the health of children and sexual/reproductive health.

Also re-emerging as a result of climate change-with old chemicals like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) once locked away in glaciers and in the polar ice being re-released as a result of accelerated thawing and melting.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This new sense of engagement, and this new sense of commitment, has been palpable in the past 12 months.

A fresh spirit of multilateralism too in terms of a shared commitment to tackle these persistent and emerging challenges.

And perhaps a return to the understanding that we live in a far more complex and interlinked world than perhaps we had wanted to believe in recent years.

Let me underline why.

Mercury Treaty

In quite transformational and for some breath-taking circumstances, governments at UNEP's last Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum gave the green light to negotiate a legally-binding treaty on mercury.

I am sure I do not have to explain the significance of that decision to this forum-governments are calling time on one of the most notorious heavy metals known.

Calling time on an issue that links with the unique circumstances of northern latitudes-from the fish in Swedish lakes to the breast milk of Inuit mothers.

But also with the climate agenda as there is emerging evidence that old mercury, locked away in sediments and in ice is again moving back into the food chain.

The flip side is that new sources of mercury are coming from coal-fired power stations.

So clearly in dealing with climate change and emissions, one can deal with not only new heavy metal pollution, but the rising temperatures that are bringing old mercury into play.

Perhaps as important as a green light for a new treaty is the commitment by governments not to wait for this treaty to be in place.

But to fast track a suite of voluntary actions in advance of the global instrument being ratified.

Equally important was a sense that, instead of moving at the speed of the slowest, the world will move fast and support those whose industries have special needs to make a switch towards a low mercury future.

This was the philosophy and the imperative that drove forward perhaps the most successful multilateral environmental agreement of them all-the Montreal Protocol of Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

A treaty that I know also resonates with this region and the health of the people living here under a thinning ozone layer and polar ozone holes-but a challenge that is being met via Montreal.


There is other good news in this re-awakening of the chemicals agenda.

The Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants originally listed 12 key chemicals and earlier this month parties took the decision to list a further nine.

That is the headline news, but in reality a lot more happened not least with the perennial question of DDT-a pesticide that raises sharply polarized views between the environmental and health communities.

That polarization has, I hope, been resolved not by emotional rhetoric or arm-wrestling but by cool, calculated and tested science.

During the Stockholm Convention meeting UNEP and the World Health Organization announced joint findings on studies in Latin America, funded by the Global Environment Facility and involving nine governments, in which alternative approaches to using DDT were tried.

The work covered close to 160,000 people directly and an estimated 6.8 million indirectly representing nearly 30 per cent of those in the highly effected areas.

Various malaria control strategies and techniques were tried and evaluated including:

Community participation as central axis of the control activities

Equitable prioritizing rural areas with mostly indigenous populations in critical poverty and the persistence of malaria

A multidisciplinary and multisector approach involving the environment and education sectors to the health sector

Combination of control methods according to the Global Strategy in the Fight Against Malaria and the Roll Back Malaria initiative.

Destruction of parasites in the population through rapid diagnosis and treatment including improved counseling and supervision of oral treatments

Reduction of contact between mosquitoes and people via treated bed nets; meshes on doors and windows; the planting of repellent trees like neem and oak and the liming of households

Control of breeding sites by clearing vegetation, draining stagnant water ditches and channels and the use of biological controls such as fish and bacteria in some countries

Elimination of places near houses that attract and shelter mosquitoes through, for example the cleaning and tidying up of areas in and around homes alongside the promotion of personal hygiene

The project achieved a 63 per cent reduction in malaria cases and a more than 86 per cent cut in ones linked with Plasmodium falciparum, the malarial parasite that causes the most severe kind of infection and the highest death rate globally.

The researchers point to other benefits including the strengthening of national and local institutions involved in combating malaria; improved scientific data on DDT contamination of communities and action on stockpiles of persistent organic pollutants.

During the project more than 136 tons of DDT and over 64 tons of chemicals such as toxapehene and chlordane were pin pointed.

These stockpiles are scheduled for export and destruction under a separated but related UNEP treaty, the Basel Convention on transboundary hazardous waste.

Projects are now going global with several new, five year regional demonstrations of sustainable alternatives to DDT launched, or set to be launched over the next 12 months.

These include one involving Eritrea, Ethiopia and Madagascar and a larger regional initiative with Djibouti; Egypt; Jordan, Morocco; the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

A third project is involving Georgia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia with a possibility of including relevant neighboring countries as well.

Another is focusing on Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in order to develop a Decision Taking Tool for governments allowing them to evaluate health, social and environmental impacts and policy tradeoffs.

The new projects underline a renewed determination of the international community to combat malaria while realizing a low, indeed zero DDT world.

In doing so the international community is calling time on a chemical rooted in the scientific knowledge and simplistic options of a previous age.

In doing so, innovative solutions are being catalyzed and sustainable choices brought forward that meet the genuine health and environmental aspirations of a 21st century society.

Ladies and gentlemen,

this is a positive step forward for countries that still need to use DDT for malaria control, but also for other parts of the world where DDT and similar kinds of chemicals concentrate and congregate.

Endocrine Disruptors

For there is mounting concern-or perhaps re-emerging concern-over a wide-range of common chemicals, and maybe in particular their breakdown products acting uniquely or perhaps together and in a super-charged way in what scientists call the 'cocktail effect'.

Some delegates here were perhaps in Italy for the G8 environment ministers meeting or perhaps heard some of the debates.

For me the most seat- raising were some papers presented by the governments of Japan and the United States on a suite of chemicals called endocrine disruptors-chemicals and their break-down products that mimic the female hormone oestrogen or block the male, androgen hormones.

The Japan and US papers concluded that:-

The rates of congenital abnormalities such as spina bifida and Down syndrome in Japan have doubled over the past quarter century and the occurrence of children's immune system impairment has tripled over the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, obesity rates, with a suspected link to disrupted metabolic and hormone systems in young people, have climbed 150 per cent in 30 years. And the birth rate of boys has fallen since the 1970s.

Now a wide-ranging study of women and newborns in Korea and the US is assessing the levels of substances such as lead, mercury and other heavy metals along with dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants set against social and genetic factors.

The work takes forward a chemicals agenda that emerged, but perhaps disappeared from the public policy radar in the 1990s.

This was when, studies began to raise the red flag about the effects on humans and wildlife of various human-made chemicals and their by-products that mimic oestrogen or block androgen.

The detection of hermaphrodite polar bear cubs in the Arctic was linked to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants once used in nuclear submarines.

Other studies suggested a link between DDT by-products and a declining sperm count in developed economies over the past half century.

I have asked the Stockholm Convention to look into the questions surrounding the break-down products of POPs.

Also requested too an accelerated investigation by UNEP's early warning and assessment staff in collaboration with relevant international experts.

There is certainly a great deal that can be done under international treaties-but there is also a great deal that can be done by responsible industry,

So I attach great importance to the potential of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management whose second meeting took place also only a few weeks ago in Geneva.

Here there was consensus an agreement to take forward work on five emerging issues - nanotechnology, e-waste, lead in paint, chemicals in everyday products, and perfluorinated chemicals.

Let us look to see how much further and faster we can take responsible chemicals management in support of international norms and standards- in support of the World Summit on Sustainable Development's targets and time-tables set in 2002.

Ladies and gentlemen, the chemicals agenda is coming back with a vengeance-another reason for this is climate change.

We meet with something approaching six months before the crucial UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen.

There are abundant reasons why a scientifically credible, equitable and decisive deal is needed-it is in UNEP's Green Economy view a chance to begin truly realizing a low carbon, more resource-efficient world.

But one that also reflects so many other agendas including the chemical one.

As mentioned before, there is growing evidence linking global warming with the harmful heavy metals like mercury-both in terms of new sources of the pollutant but also the re-emergence of the highly toxic organic form from sources like lake sediments and the Arctic ice.

The climate link to chemicals does not end there.

During UNEP's last Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, we released our annual Year Book 2009.

Some POPs and climate-related related findings were:-

Hazardous substances, deposited from the atmosphere and locked away in glaciers, are now being re-released.

The pesticide DDT is turning up in unanticipated amounts in Adelie penguins that live in parts of the Antarctic coastline.

Organic pollutants are being carried back into the environment from melting glaciers in the Rocky Mountains of North America.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can be found downstream of European glaciers.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are living at a moment in time where, perhaps for the first time, many are making multiple links between cause and effect-between the multiple impacts of one or two actions on a far wider stage than hitherto had been the case.

The chemicals agenda is not unique-it does not live in a vacuum.

The same governments here today are the same ones that will make and contribute to a sound and solid agreement in Copenhagen in December.

There is a lot at stake in terms of sealing a deal-energy security, clean energy for the two billion people in the developing world without access to energy up to cleaner and healthier air in developing country cities and a reduced risk of droughts, floods and extreme weather events.

Reducing the risks and the burden of chemicals may, only a few years ago, not seem such an obvious fit or connection.

But today chemicals must now be included in those challenges and opportunities that will in part flow from a good climate deal.