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Borrowing the future


Manee Lee

Minister of Environment, Republic of Korea

One day, repeating to myself the title, “Our Planet”, I looked up at the night sky. Scientists say it takes several, even thousands of years, for starlight to reach our planet Earth. The twinkling stars we now see may have already disappeared. Like starlight taking a long time to reach us, the long dormant consequences of environmental factors can often suddenly appear.

This is true of chemicals. They have been a major driving force behind industrial development and much-improved human well-being — but quite a few have become a threat. DDT (Dichloro- Diphenyl-Trichloroethane), for instance, was hailed in the 1940s as a miraculous insecticide and its discovery was rewarded with the Nobel Prize. But it was banned after thirty years of use after its negative impact on the environment, bioaccumulation and other side effects were revealed. So the chemicals of today cannot simply be praised for the convenience they bring to us: they can be like a black box, possibly containing negative secrets.

Given their potential toxicity, their efficacy must be raised and their hazards reduced through chemicals safety management. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development resolved on assessing and managing hazardous chemicals sustainably in compliance with the precautionary principle and considering the safety of future generations, with the goal of using and producing them by 2020 in ways that do not lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment.

In accordance with such global efforts, many governments are shifting toward management policies based on the precautionary principle in a bid to assess the hazards and risks of all chemicals in use, and to restrict or ban those with negative impacts on the human body or ecosystems. The EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances), which came into effect in June 2007, has taken the lead. Japan, China and many other countries have also institutionalized precautionary regulations for using hazardous chemicals in industrial raw materials or products.

The Korean Government intends to expand the range of its management from around 4,000 new chemicals to all 40,000 or so in use, advancing existing hazards management to a long-term risk management system where the effects on future generations are considered. To lay a legal foundation, it is planning to enact the ‘Act on Registration, Evaluation and Restriction of Chemicals’ this year.

Recognizing that children are most vulnerable to dangers from chemicals, the government has focused on protecting their health. A comprehensive strategy for children’s environmental health declared in 2006 sets out the environmental safety management standards to ensure that there is no use of hazardous substances such as lead and arsenic in such places as playgrounds, child-care facilities and schools. The strategy also stipulates that there should be hazards assessments to protect health from hazardous materials like heavy metals and phthalates found in such children’s products as baby goods, stationeries and toys: highly hazardous goods for children are to be banned from production, distribution and use. The third WHO International Conference on Children’s Health and the Environment — held in Korea in 2009 with attendees from 54 different countries — helped strengthen awareness on hazardous chemicals’ impact on children and on assessing them. It adopted the Busan Declaration, recommending that information on impacts on children’s health should be included in national action environmental health plans.

Responses to imminent threats follow instinct: those to potential ones depend on reason. We, as members of the global society, should join in sustainably managing chemicals so that they really benefit future generations. Just as starlight may take a hundred years to reach the Earth, the present we live in is borrowed from them.

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