Recognition of the risks that chemicals pose to the human health and the environment has led to significant progress being made at the international levels to address this. Important recent landmarks include:

  • Agenda 21 (1992);
  • The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) (2002);
  • The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (Rotterdam Convention) (1998) which entered into force in 2004; and
  • The Stockholm Convention (2001) which entered into force in 2004.

These multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) complement the more established global regime that includes:

  • International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions dealing with workplace safety (including Convention 170 on Safety in the Use of Chemicals at Work and Convention 174 on the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents);
  • MEAs regulating trade in hazardous waste including Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, 1989 (Basel) (which entered into force in 1992) and Africa’s Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa, 1991(Bamako) (which entered into force in 1998); and
  • MEAs dealing with marine pollution.


In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) focused world attention on concerns related to the risks inherent in chemical production, transportation, distribution, storage, handling and disposal of unused materials and wastes. It adopted Agenda 21 – a global programme of action. Several chapters of Agenda 21 deal directly with the use of chemicals. These focus on environmentally-sound management of toxic chemicals (see Box 8). including the control of illegal international traffic (Chapter 19), the management of hazardous waste (Chapter 20) and capacity-building in developing countries (Chapter 38) (UN 1992a). This further refined the global approach to environmental problems by emphasising the link between environment and development, the need for integrated responses, and global cooperation and responsibility.

Box 8: Agenda 21, Chapter 19: Priority programme areas for managing toxic chemicals
  1. Expanding and accelerating international assessment of chemical risks. Objective: to strengthen international risk assessment, assess several hundred priority chemicals or groups of chemicals by 2000, and produce exposure guidelines for a large number of toxic chemicals.
  2. Harmonization of classification and labelling of chemicals. Objective: to develop, by 2000, a globally harmonized hazard classification and labelling system, including material safety data sheets and easily understandable symbols.
  3. Information exchange on toxic chemicals and chemical risks. Objective: to increase the exchange of information on chemical safety, use and emissions among all involved stakeholders, and achieve full participation in and implementation of the procedure for PIC by the year 2000.
  4. Establishment of risk reduction programmes. Objective: to eliminate unacceptable or unreasonable risks posed by toxic chemicals and, where economically feasible, to reduce such risks through risk reduction and precautionary measures based on lifecycle analyses.
  5. Strengthening of national capabilities and capacities for managing chemicals. Objective: all countries should have in place, by 2000, national systems for the sound management of chemicals.
  6. Prevention of illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous products. Objective: to reinforce national capacities to detect and prevent traffic in toxic and dangerous products that contravenes national legislation or international legal instruments.

Source: Buccini 2004

The WSSD reviewed progress made towards achieving the targets set out by Agenda 21. It agreed to ensure that by 2020 chemicals are used and produced in ways that minimize the significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment. It recognized that to achieve this, new management approaches would need to be adopted including the use of transparent, science-based risk assessment and management procedures based on the precautionary approach, as set out in principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UN 1992b). Chapter 9: Genetically Modified Crops provides a full overview of science-based risk assessment and how it can be used to support informed decision making. WSSD also committed the global community to support developing countries in enhancing their capacity for the sound management of chemicals and hazardous waste by providing technical and financial assistance – endorsing the UNEP-led Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) in pursuit of these goals.

Figure 8: Parties to the Stockholm Convention The Stockholm Convention deals specifically with chemical management and in particular with POPs, PCBs and dioxides. The objective of this convention is to protect human health and environment. Parties are required to take action on an initial group of 12 specified chemicals. This treaty was adopted in May 2001 but, however it only entered into force in May 2004 and it currently has 122 parties including over 30 African countries (Figure 8).

Parties are required, at a minimum, to reduce the total toxic releases from listed chemicals but also to work towards the overall goal of continuing minimization and, where feasible, ultimate elimination. Parties are also required to reduce or eliminate release from stockpiles and waste. They must develop and implement strategies to identify stockpiles and wastes containing POPs and to manage these in an environmentally-sound manner. Further, parties are required to develop national implementation plans (NIPs) within two years of entry into force of the Convention.

Within Africa there have been several important responses to improving chemical management. At a regional meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in May 2004, African governments committed themselves to promote synergies and coordination among chemical regulatory instruments and agencies, and specifically proposed the following activities, (SAICM 2004):

  • Manage chemicals at all stages of their life cycle, using the principles of “cradle-to-grave” life cycle management.
  • Target the most toxic and hazardous chemicals as a priority.
  • Ensure full integration of chemicals management and better coordination among stakeholders.
  • Increase chemical safety capacity at all levels.
  • Ensure that children and other vulnerable people are protected from the risks of chemicals.
  • Promote corporate social responsibility and develop approaches that reduce human and environmental risks for all, rather than transferring the risks to those least able to cope with them.
  • Incorporate the legal approaches or principles of precaution, polluter pays, and the right-to-know. This must be complemented by a commitment to substitution of toxic chemicals by less harmful alternatives and promote more environmentallyfriendly practices by industries. This can be achieved through, among other measures, encouraging the private sector to seek compliance with the ISO 14000 standards.
  • Integrate the precautionary, life cycle, partnership, liability and accountability approaches in management.

The NEPAD Environmental Action Plan (NEPAD-EAP) sets an Africa-wide approach to environmental management. Although chemical management is not one of the programme areas, it is identified as a key crosscutting issue. At the national and regional level, environmental action programmes will need to respond to the challenges of chemical management. Some of the actions that could be included are emergency response plans, prevention of illegal transboundary movement of chemicals, capacitybuilding of regional centres for the management of dangerous waste in the context of the Stockholm Convention, and the development and implementation of programmes for reducing hazardous waste.