The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) has published a policy brief that addresses chemicals of concern in products, and efforts to minimize their adverse effects on human health and the environment. The policy brief titled, ‘Understanding Chemicals in Products,’ is a contribution from the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project on ‘Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under SAICM.’

The policy brief notes that transparency of information about chemicals in global supply chains has been an emerging policy issue since 2009, leading to, for example, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Chemicals in Products (CiP) programme, which focuses on the textiles, toys, electronics and building materials sectors. In 2015, SAICM welcomed CiP and proposed cooperative actions to address information gaps, focusing on the four sectors as documentation of hazardous chemicals often does not exist or is not available outside supply chains. According to SAICM, information exchange helps identify and address chemicals of concern in products, particularly for manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

Chemicals of concern in toys often enter the lifecycle during plastic production, painting and coating, or through recycled materials. Exposure can result in long-term health effects for children, interfering with the hormone system or learning abilities. Specific chemicals of concern include persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from recycled plastic, cadmium in batteries and lead paint, among others.

Electronics contain valuable materials such as metals, which make recycling attractive. Reuse and repair are also common, particularly for high-value products such as medical equipment. However, during the end-of-life and production stages, e-waste is often shipped to developing countries where workers recovering resources of value are exposed to toxic substances. Chemicals of concern include flame retardants in insulation and mercury in switches, as well as  worker exposure to benzene in factories.

Potential sources of hazardous chemicals in building materials include use of recycled materials and performance-enhancing substances, which are costly to remove and may affect construction workers and expose inhabitants to indoor pollution. Chemicals in building materials include asbestos, preservative treatment in outdoor wood, mercury in lighting and lead in paint.

Potential sources of hazardous chemicals in textiles production include stain resistance coatings and pesticides from cotton production. Some of the chemicals may persist in the environment, build up in the body, and affect immune and reproductive systems. 

The policy brief also discusses measures to reduce chemicals of concern through:

  • legislation and information system tools such regulations, standards and certification mechanisms, and ensuring brands control suppliers to enable compliance;
  • holistic tools that consider the entire value chain such as life cycle assessment tools and eco-innovation;
  • production tools that seek to minimize exposure and focus on cleaner and responsible production and chemical leasing; and
  • consumption tools that focus on consumer behavior, including sustainable public procurement and ecolabels. 

The GEF-funded project aims to accelerate the adoption of national and value chain initiatives by promoting: regulatory and voluntary government and industry action to phase out lead in paint; lifecycle management of chemicals present in products; and knowledge management and stakeholder engagement. Being implemented in over 40 countries, the project also seeks to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. [Publication: Understanding Chemicals in Products] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on 57th Meeting of GEF Council]