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Time to tackle chemicals

Karen Elemann

Minister for Environment, Denmark

Chemicals are important for developing new and innovative technologies and products that add to economic growth and contribute to human welfare through medicines and other useful goods — and the chemicals industry is an important and rapidly growing economic sector.

Yet, at the same time, they affect the state of ecosystems, human health and development — including the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, health and environmental sustainability by the year 2015. Mercury in soap, endocrine disruptors in consumer products, persistent organic pollutants in clothes are just a few examples on how chemicals are everywhere. More than 100,000 different chemical substances exist, and we are all exposed to a chemical cocktail in our daily lives.

At the 2002 World Summit in Johannesburg, the world adopted the target that, by 2020, chemicals are to be produced and used in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on the environment and on human health. So how are we doing? What are our recent achievements? Do we have the necessary framework in place? And how do we ensure that we can react in an effective and efficient manner to new challenges?

Last year’s UNEP Governing Council took a milestone decision in the pursuit of effective regulation on mercury — to start negotiations on a legally binding instrument. Mercury has been of global concern for a long time, especially since the tragic pollution of Minamata Bay in Japan, when a whole community suffered the consequences of high exposure. For Denmark and the other Nordic countries, troubling findings of mercury in the Arctic underscored the problem. Mercury ends up in humans and animals in the region even though it has no production and very limited emissions of the toxic metal. Not surprisingly, Japan and the Nordic countries are amongst the warmest proponents of global regulation on mercury: this is reflected in the Nordic Council of Ministers’ financing of the first Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC) meeting in Stockholm in June 2010 and Japan’s funding of the second meeting in Chiba in January this year. I hope and expect that the negotiations will be finalised as planned in 2013. Denmark, which will have the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in Spring 2012 during INC 4 will do its utmost to contribute to that.

The Mercury Convention will complement other global chemicals and hazardous waste conventions which — with the 2006 global chemicals strategy, Strategic Approach to International Chemicals (SAICM) — are key cornerstones for sound chemicals management. SAICM can play a central role. It has a multi stakeholder approach that involves the private sector and encompasses issues of health, environment and worker safety, and can address emerging issues. But it is not a legally binding instrument and at present does not have the support it deserves and needs.

Developments and new knowledge continuously challenge us and show our regulatory regimes to be inadequate. The combined effects from exposure to multiple chemicals are troubling. Combined exposure to endocrine disrupting substances, for example, can cause serious adverse effects at doses where no effects are observed for individual ones. It is no longer a question of whether or not the combination effects of chemicals are relevant in risk assessment — the question is how legislation should address these concerns most appropriately.

Denmark recently conducted a study on the typical combined exposure for two-year olds. It showed frequent exposure to many different chemicals, mainly through food and indoor air but also through lotions like moisturisers and sunscreens. We decided to act on the findings in a precautionary manner and launched a campaign in 2009 targeting parents with advice on how to minimize the exposure of children through relatively simple measures.

Though important agreements like SAICM and some conventions are in place — and a new mercury convention is underway — they will not be sufficient. The Stockholm Convention regulates production and use of chemicals, but is limited to persistent organic pollutants. We need a broader regulatory framework for other types of chemicals to deal with future challenges.

The decision in February 2010 – through the “synergies process” — to bring closely together three chemicals and waste conventions (Stockholm, Rotterdam and Basel), was a successful step in the right direction of better coordination and cooperation. The first initiative that successfully contributed to improving international environmental governance from inside the system, the decision helped streamline international chemicals governance and make it more effective and transparent for governments, businesses and the public.

But we must not stop here. Improving international chemicals governance needs to be a continuous process that keeps up with the developments in production, consumption and knowledge. In our present and future work on new instruments, we must do our best to make them future proof. We must avoid starting from scratch every time there is a need for international action. The agreements or structures we adopt in the future should be designed to make them usable for a wider range of chemicals and type of measures. Of course, any new regulation will still need to be agreed upon in a manner agreeable to all countries as it is today.

Flexible structures that recognize the obvious fact that new initiatives are likely to become relevant in the future will be the best approach, for example, in the negotiations on the mercury convention.

A strengthened regime can only be achieved if we can raise awareness and specific knowledge on how closely chemicals are intertwined in all aspects of sustainable development. I therefore welcome UNEP’s preparation of a Global Chemicals Outlook, exploring such aspects as the costs of inaction, as well as Green or sustainable chemistry and Green growth. I hope the Global Chemicals Outlook will help raise awareness, and thereby gain support, from governments, the business sector and other stakeholders. This is absolutely essential if the benefits of chemicals are to be reaped without compromising health and the environment.

The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry and many meetings related to chemicals management will take place during these twelve months. It is now time to tackle chemicals.

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