Urgent Action Needed to Reduce Growing Health and Environmental Hazards from Chemicals: UN Report

Text: UNEP Photos: Action Press/Virot Date: September 5, 2012
Chemical ‘Intensification’ of Economies in Developing Countries Means Greater Risk of Exposure to Hazardous Substances
New Study Shows Sound Management of Chemicals Can Deliver Major Economic Benefits and Support Green Economy
Senior UNEP staff presented the latest GCO (Global Chemicals Outlook Report during a press conference at UNOG
Geneva / Nairobi / Mexico City / New York, 5 September 2012 – Coordinated action by governments and industry is urgently needed to reduce the growing risks to human health and the environment posed by the unsustainable management of chemicals worldwide, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
These risks are compounded by the steady shift in the production, use and disposal of chemical products from developed countries to emerging and developing economies, where safeguards and regulations are often weaker, says the report.
UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook, released today, highlights the major economic burden caused by chemical hazards, particularly in developing countries.
The report reveals that the estimated costs of poisonings from pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa now exceeds the total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS.
Between 2005 and 2020, the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa could reach USD $90 billion.
Sound chemicals management can reduce these financial and health burdens, while improving livelihoods, supporting ecosystems, reducing pollution and developing green technology, says the study.
The release of the report – the first comprehensive assessment of its kind – follows renewed commitments by countries at the Rio+20 summit in June to prevent the illegal dumping of toxic wastes, develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in products, and increase the recycling of waste, among other measures.
By examining global chemicals trends and their economic implications, the UNEP report maps out the most effective approaches for decision-makers to deliver on these commitments.
“Communities worldwide – particularly those in emerging and developing countries – are increasingly dependent on chemical products, from fertilizers and petrochemicals to electronics and plastics, for economic development and improving livelihoods,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner.
“But the gains that chemicals can provide must not come at the expense of human health and the environment. Pollution and disease related to the unsustainable use, production and disposal of chemicals can, in fact, hinder progress towards key development targets by affecting water supplies, food security, well-being or worker productivity. Reducing hazards and improving chemicals management – at all stages of the supply chain – is, thus, an essential component of the transition to a low carbon, resource efficient and inclusive green economy,” added Mr. Steiner.
At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, UN member states set a target that by 2020, chemicals should be produced and used in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment.
“The economic analysis presented in the Global Chemicals Outlook demonstrates that sound chemicals management is as valid an area as education, transport, infrastructure, direct health care services and other essential public services. This could foster the creation of many green, decent and healthy jobs and livelihoods for developed and developing countries,” said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment.
“Effective long-term management of chemicals and wastes lays the foundations for a thriving Green Economy, for ensuring a healthier environment, and for a fairer distribution of development benefits across society,” added Dr. Neira.
In recent years, international conventions, governments and corporations have taken significant steps in developing national and international capacities for managing chemicals safely and soundly.
But the Global Chemicals Outlook states that the pace of progress has been slow, and that results are too often insufficient.
· Of the estimated 140,000+ chemicals on the market today, only a fraction has been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment. · Among primarily OECD countries, the data indicate that inorganic chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid and organic chemicals such as styrene, formaldehyde, toluene and acetaldehyde are routinely among the air pollutants released in the highest quantities. · Pollutants commonly discharged in large quantities in primarily OECD countries to surface waters include inorganic chemicals such as nitric acid/nitrate compounds, ammonia and manganese and organic chemicals such as methanol, ethylene glycol, phenol, toluene, and formaldehyde. · Estimates suggest that up to 75 per cent of the e-waste generated in Europe and approximately 80 per cent of the e-waste generated in the United States goes unaccounted for. · Poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to over 1 million deaths annually and 14 million Disability Adjusted Life Years. The scope of unintended industrial accidents involving chemicals continues to grow rapidly.
Global Chemical Trends: Environment and Health Impacts
In developing and emerging economies, products of the chemicals industry – such as dyes, detergents and adhesives among others – are rapidly replacing traditional plant, animal or ceramic-based products.
According to the UNEP report, global chemical sales are set to increase by around 3 per cent a year until 2050.
Africa and the Middle East are set to register an average 40 per cent increase in chemical production between 2012 and 2020, with Latin America expected to see a 33 per cent rise.
This chemical ‘intensification’ of economies, as termed by the UNEP report, means that synthetic chemicals are fast becoming the largest constituents of waste streams and pollution around the world – thereby increasing the exposure of humans and habitats to chemical hazards.
· In Sudan, studies show a three-fold elevated risk of mortality for pregnant women engaged in farming where pesticides are used. · In Ecuador, bathing and drinking water used by villagers near an oil extraction site contained levels of petroleum hydrocarbons up to 288 times higher than European Community standards. · A 2009 study of 212 chemicals in the United States found that all the substances examined were detected in some portion of the national population. · Over 3000 chemicals are classified under the EU harmonized classifications as toxic to aquatic life, with levels of toxicity ranging between “very toxic” to “toxic with long lasting harmful effects”.
Key environmental concerns include pesticide and fertilizer contamination of rivers and lakes, heavy metal pollution associated with cement and textile production, and dioxin contamination from mining.
Run-off from fertilizers and pesticides is contributing to a growing number of oxygen-poor ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters.
According to UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 5, released in June 2012, only 13 of the world’s 169 coastal dead zones are recovering.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) can be transported over long distances in the air and later be deposited onto land and water resources. These chemicals can accumulate in organisms as they move up the food chain.
Mercury, for example, is transformed by aquatic organisms into compounds that can reach tens of thousands of times the concentration originally found in water.
As well as harming biodiversity, this can have a serious effect on fisheries – an important source of protein and livelihoods for millions of people worldwide.
Global Chemical Trends: Economic Implications
A transition towards sustainable production, use and disposal of chemicals can yield significant economic benefits in terms of development, poverty reduction and reduced risks to human health and the environment, says the Global Chemicals Outlook.
Poor management of chemicals is incurring multi-billion dollar costs worldwide – most of which are not borne by manufacturers or others along the supply chain, but instead by social welfare systems or individuals.
· Poor management of volatile organic compounds is responsible for global economic losses estimated at USD $236.3 billion. · Exposure to mercury results in health and environmental damage estimated at USD $22 billion. · The damage caused by acute water pollution to commercial fisheries in China has been estimated at USD $634 million during the period of one year. · In the USA, poorly managed pesticides have resulted in USD $1.4 billion in crop losses, and USD $2.2 billion in bird losses. · The Buncefield oil storage depot incident in the UK resulted in one of the biggest conflagrations in peace-time Europe, with losses of over £1 billion in litigation and medical costs alone.
In developed and developing countries, longer, more complex supply chains, and the introduction of new chemical compounds mean that products are now more likely to fail to meet safety standards, according to the UNEP report.
This can increase the risk of industrial accidents, and the heavy financial and health burdens they bring. Costs incurred due to asbestos and contaminated drywall, for example, total over USD $125 billion worldwide – and the figure is still rising.
In developing and emerging countries, major economic gains can be made through sustainable agriculture practices, such as integrated pest management (IPM).
IPM involves using fewer chemicals, and introducing alternative methods such as crop rotation, providing conditions for natural enemies of pests and better pest monitoring.
In potato farms in Ecuador, IPM was introduced to tackle high pesticide poisoning rates. The IPM plantations yielded as many or more potatoes, but with over 20 per cent less production costs, than plots using chemical pesticides. Reported cases of pesticide-related neurological problems also fell.
Indonesia introduced as early as the1990s an Integrated Pest Management programme that helped farmers to reduce the use of pesticides by over 50 per cent and increase yields by approximately 10 per cent.
Economic gains from implementing the country’s 2001-2020 national IPM programme are estimated to be equivalent to 3.65 per cent of Indonesia’s GDP in 2000.
Predicted benefits over a 19-year-period include the avoidance of over 20,000 cases of acute poisonings among rice farmers, a total accumulated GDP gain equivalent to 22 per cent of Indonesia’s GDP in 2000, and an increase in household income by up to 5 per cent.
The global benefits from the phase-out of leaded fuel amount to USD $2.45 trillion, or 4 per cent of global annual GDP.
Better end-of-life chemicals management can also support the recovery of valuable materials from waste. This is particularly relevant to electronic waste (e-waste), which is recycled or dismantled for precious metals such as gold or copper – increasingly in developing countries.
E-waste recycling in developing countries is a largely unregulated sector, where workers are routinely exposed to many harmful chemicals, such as dioxins released by burning cables.
In Ghana, the introduction of safer, more efficient recycling technologies, which avoid burning, resulted in a 45 per cent increase in the revenue received per recycled desktop computer.
Additionally, up to 90 per cent of ozone-depleting substances found in e-waste were recovered using improved recycling techniques.
Way Forward and Recommendations
Many countries have over the past four decades implemented legal frameworks, regulatory authorities and other measures to reduce chemical hazards.
Chemicals manufacturers have also developed new methods and guidelines to strengthen such efforts.
On the international level, the UNEP-hosted Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and the UN’s Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes Conventions provide regulatory and voluntary frameworks for promoting the sound management of chemicals.
But despite such progress, the Global Chemicals Outlook states that more effort is needed at all stages of the chemicals supply chain, if the 2020 goal of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation is to be achieved, and the related economic, environmental and health benefits realized.
The report outlines key approaches for a global transition to improved chemicals management – particularly in developing and emerging economies:
· Mainstreaming: Sound chemicals management needs to be comprehensively integrated into national social and economic plans.At present, responsibilities are often shared across several bodies, leading to fragmented and ineffective responses. · Multi-stakeholder: In many countries, corporations have the most complete information on chemicals and wastes and significant technical capacity. Producers, manufacturers and importers should be the first line of safe chemical management and play an active role in developing policies with governments. · Prevention: Governments in developing and emerging countries should develop policies that focus on preventing risks and promoting safer alternatives, rather than remediating hazards only. · Capacity Building: The costs of effectively managing chemicals and wastes remain an obstacle for many countries. There is a pressing need for financial assistance from developed countries and international donors. Governments in developing and emerging countries should promote innovation and the use of safer chemicals to attract investments.
Many countries are already moving ahead with fresh approaches to chemicals.
Brazil has established a National Commission on Chemical Safety to improve coordination among government agencies, while Costa Rica has also established a similar body.
In Uganda, a UN-backed initiative has overseen the integration of chemical management priorities into the country’s Five Year National Development Plan.
“From sustainable agriculture, to green buildings and waste management, sound chemicals management is an essential ingredient for almost all sectors in the transition towards a green economy,” said UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner.
“But to harness the economic benefits of sound chemicals management, closer cooperation and better planning is required between government ministries, public and private sectors, and others in the chemicals supply chain.”
“This requires broad and ambitious efforts, underpinned by strategic financing. Such action can elevate chemicals management to the top of the international policy agenda and help deliver inclusive sustainable development,” added Mr. Steiner.
The Global Chemicals Outlooks lays out other specific recommendations for countries, corporations and civil society to accelerate progress towards the 2020 goal, and ensure the sound management of chemicals. These include:
· Developing coherent approaches and assessments for monitoring chemicals exposures and environmental and health effects. · Analyzing further the economic cost of chemical effects. · Adopting and implementing legal instruments that define the responsibilities of the public and private sector for chemicals control. · Further generating and making public an appropriate baseline set of health and environmental effects for chemicals in commerce. · Active participation of civil society organizations should participate actively in decision-making on chemical safety at al levels.