The Chemicals and Waste Community of Practice will host a number of discussions in 2023 related to SAICM beyond 2020, chemical issues of concern, capacity building, chemicals of concern across diverse supply chains and other relevant topics. Members will include representatives from academia, governments, industry, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, consumers, and citizens.
The purpose of this CoP is to establish an effective global network of experts on SAICM with a space for information sharing and long-term engagement. This CoP discussion will support all practitioners working on chemicals and waste management and give a space to share knowledge, latest research and developments, learn what representatives from different sectors are doing under the scope of chemicals and waste management and provide access to expertise on various topics related to SAICM.
Angela Pinilla works in the interface of science, business strategy, and safer chemicals.
My work involves, although not limited to: the formulation of policies and guidelines; implementation of principles, like the polluter pay principle and extended producer's responsibility, with regard to chemicals.
Articles of interest
Guía para la consideración de sustancias químicas de preocupación en el proceso de compras públicas sostenibles de Aparatos eléctricos y electrónicos
Este documento aborda la gestión de sustancias químicas de preocupación y algunos
aspectos de sostenibilidad, incluyendo la circularidad en la compra pública sostenible
(CPS) de los AEE, específicamente de computadores, impresoras y acondicionadores de
aire, proporcionando además una orientación clara a las entidades públicas sobre cómo
incluir criterios técnicos para la adquisición de dichos equipos.
Food Systems and Chemicals: Addressing Highly Hazardous Pesticides
Safe or scary? The use of pesticides in modern agriculture has brought gains but also risks for human health and the environment. Addressing the use of chemicals, including highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), in our modern world is especially important in the context of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, which jeopardizes decades of progress in human development. Current trends showing that the SDGs are off track illustrate the gravity of the situation. While blurred by complexity and distrust, the sound management of chemicals and waste is central for more resilient and healthier food systems.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) 2013 International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management and the 2016 Guidelines on Highly Hazardous Pesticides adopt the following definition of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs): “pesticides that are acknowledged to present particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or environment according to internationally accepted classification systems such as WHO or Global Harmonized System (GHS) or their listing in relevant binding international agreements or conventions.”
Chemicals, such as pesticides, fertilizers, and food additives, are widely used in food production to increase crop yields, prevent pest damage, and enhance food’s appearance, taste, and shelf life. However, exposure to certain chemicals can harm human health, including by causing cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and neurological issues. In particular, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) latest Global Chemicals Outlook warns about the growing risks associated with the use of hazardous chemicals and other pollutants.
This Policy Brief aims to provide a comprehensive overview of current challenges related to food systems, focusing on the impact of HHPs on the health of people and the planet. It concludes with policy recommendations that can support decision makers in implementing integrated approaches to pesticide management, notably in the context of the new Global Framework on Chemicals, adopted in September 2023.
Food systems transformation: The need for bold and urgent action
Our current food systems are not fit-for-purpose. This is because despite the successful growth of global production and a growing population, several new challenges emerged due to how we produce and consume food in our modern era.
First, paradoxically, all forms of malnutrition are on the rise. The 2023 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) shows that about 29.6% of the global population – 2.4 billion people – were moderately or severely food insecure in 2022. Among them, about 900 million (11.3% of people in the world) were severely food insecure. Second, food production and unsustainable consumption patterns challenge the wellbeing of future generations. Around 828 million, or 1 in 9, people go to bed hungry every night. This happens at the same time that 931 million tons of food, or 17% of the total food available to consumers, goes to waste. Food loss and waste are estimated to account for 8-10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, exacerbating climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Third, rising inequalities contribute to negative trends in food security. For example, the gender gap in food insecurity continued to rise in 2021, with 31.9% of women in the world being moderately or severely food insecure, compared to 27.6% of men – a gap of more than four percentage points, compared with three percentage points in 2020. Finally, unsustainable food systems, coupled with the cost-of-living crisis, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing conflicts worldwide, risk exposing populations to increasingly insecure food and energy supplies.
With the burden of malnutrition disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable with low incomes, deep health disparities will continue delaying progress in poverty reduction under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. The SOFI 2023 report also projects that almost 600 million people will still be facing hunger in 2030 – even if global economic recovery is achieved. This is the same as in 2015, when the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition by the end of this decade was launched under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 SDGs.
In sum, more is needed to achieve a genuinely equitable food system that delivers nutritious and healthy diets for all. Recognizing these challenges, the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and its follow-up actions set the stage for a transformation that can support the achievement of the SDGs by 2030.
Food systems and chemicals management: Challenges for people and the planet
A more resilient, healthier, and more equitable and sustainable environment is a core piece of the food systems transformation puzzle. And yet, the excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil, water, wildlife, and habitats. This is especially critical in the context of HHPs. As noted, HHPs are pesticides that must be handled differently, given their high toxicity. They are considered too dangerous for standard risk reduction measures, such as labeling and personal protective equipment (PPE).
HHP residues are also found in food. This is not only dangerous for farmers and other workers directly handling those chemicals but raises risks for consumers as well. Developing countries shoulder these risks disproportionately, as only 35% of them have pesticide regulations. Moreover, even with regulations, a lack of capacity to enforce the rules creates implementation gaps. With the global population growing, food safety remains a rising challenge worldwide, given that pesticide residues are found in high concentrations in fresh agriculture. Recent statistical results show that the most problematic hazard classifications for food safety are antibacterial substances and pesticides.
Figure 1. Percentage of pesticides considered as highly hazardous, by country
Source: Pesticide Atlas 2022, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung & others Eimermacher/stockmarpluswalter, CC BY 4.0
Moreover, according to WHO, three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur annually, resulting in an estimated 220,000 deaths, with HHPs being responsible for many poisoning incidents. In addition, about 20% of the approximately 800,000 people who die by suicide yearly do so by ingesting pesticides (WHO, 2019). HHPs harmful effects are particularly notable in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs), where the lack of regulations or disposal centers cause great damage. In total, 95% of 385 million people who suffer from unintended pesticide poisoning every year are in the Global South.
Global chemical pollution levels have crossed planetary boundaries
Already in 1962, the famous ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson alerted the world to the harmful effects of pesticides. This milestone work influenced the ban of highly toxic chemicals such as DDT in many countries. Despite this success, nowadays, the use of chemicals is at its record high. To safeguard our planet’s habitability, countries must work with and not against nature. And yet, harmful impacts of HHPs on ecosystems have historically been neglected.
The use of agrochemicals comes with the promise that they will minimize losses by protecting crops, increasing productivity, and maintaining the quality of products. They are also defended for the chance to save labor costs, which allows for price reduction of global commodities. Pesticides have been used to keep harmful pests away from the fields, including rats, mice, ticks, and mosquitoes. Although there have been advantages in terms of productivity, exposure to HHPs is problematic. According to WHO, the most significant exposure to HHPs occurs among agricultural and public health workers during handling, diluting, mixing, and applying pesticides. HHPs have been linked to immunologic abnormalities and reproductive and developmental consequences.
A highly contentious debate linked to this theme is the expansion of genetically modified crops. A study shows that, currently, 74% of soybeans grown worldwide are genetically modified. The same analysis shows that Brazil and Argentina are now among the countries with the highest herbicide consumption in the world, just after China and the US.
Pesticides are ubiquitous. They contaminate groundwater, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, representing a threat to the environment. Healthy soils are considered an essential natural element for human security. And yet, population growth and rapid urbanization are putting soils at risk, and agricultural intensification is making soils more prone to erosion. Allowing unrestricted use of chemicals exacerbates this challenge. The importance of healthy soils, which are fundamental to the future of food, is underestimated. Diverse species, including invertebrates, bacteria, and fungi, that are essential for ecosystem services because they help filter water, recycle nutrients, sequester greenhouse gases (GHGs), regulate climate, and support healthy soils, are threatened by abundant use of dangerous chemicals. Insects, too, are in danger, and this is bad news for us. This is because they offer pollinating services, allowing fruits, flowers, and vegetables to grow. Honey, silk, and beeswax are other products that insects offer, besides contributing to recycling of nutrients and pest control.
Organochlorine Pesticides (OCPs) concentrations, measured in air and human milk, showed a general declining trend. However, OCPs are still found in the environment, including in some remote places showing high values, even though these substances have been banned decades ago. DDT, one of the initially listed persistent organic pollutant (POPs) under the Stockholm Convention, was detected in high values in both core matrices air and human milk. DDT has been the dominant POP out of all the POPs analyzed in the framework of the UNEP/GEF Global Monitoring Plan (GMP) projects. Further, other OCPs like dieldrin, heptachlor, and endosulfan showed scattered values depending on the country.
The use of synthetic chemicals and the expansion of monocultures cause biodiversity loss and erode the basis for a healthy future. The intensification of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution could increase the use of pesticides, creating a vicious cycle: the decreasing number of beneficial insects justifies and calls for more pesticide use, further reducing all types of biodiversity. Moreover, pesticides are constantly on the move. Wind can move dangerous particles from agricultural areas to residential zones. Called “pesticide drift,” this phenomenon has often been overlooked.
In addition, pesticides threaten people’s right to live in dignity, the right to bodily integrity, and the right to a healthy environment. Only around 4% of all pesticides used globally are regulated by binding international conventions. Moreover, indirect effects on food chains and biodiversity remain little understood, with negative effects hard to predict. Responding to all these challenges calls for an accelerated transition toward more resilient, sustainable, nutritious, and inclusive food systems.
Regulatory shortcomings and the need for multilateral coordination
Several international, national, and regional regulations are in place to minimize chemical exposure throughout the food supply, benefiting people and the planet.
Prior to the adoption of the Global Framework on Chemicals, for more than 15 years, SAICM served as a global policy framework aimed at enhancing the management of chemicals and improving the health of human beings and the environment. Efforts to agree on a chemicals management approach have a long history, starting at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), where countries agreed to achieve, by 2020, the use and production of chemicals in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. That led to the launch, in 2006, of the SAICM at the first ICCM in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). A flexible, voluntary, non-binding, multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral initiative dedicated to promoting collaboration, SAICM, recognized the importance of ensuring safety, calling for developing and implementing policies and measures to minimize exposure to hazardous chemicals through the food supply and improving the overall safety of the food system.
To continue this work, in September 2023, the Fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) adopted a successor agreement to SAICM – the Global Framework on Chemicals. Among others, the new framework calls for the prevention of illegal trade and trafficking of chemicals and waste, the implementation of national legal frameworks, and the phase out, by 2035, of HHPs in agriculture. The adoption of this new framework on chemicals, pollution, and waste recognizes these challenges at the same level as the crises of climate change and nature and biodiversity loss.
This enhanced global cooperation complements other multilateral efforts. For example, the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) conducts risk assessments for pesticide residues in food. With an independent international expert scientific group, these assessments are based on all data submitted to national registries of pesticides worldwide, complemented by peer-reviewed articles. JMPR sets safety limits to ensure that the amount of exposure to pesticide residue when consuming food over lifetime does not result in adverse health effects. These are used by governments and other regulatory bodies such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which establishes maximum residue limits (MRLs) in food standards.
At the national level, countries have established food safety agencies to oversee the implementation of food safety regulations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in the EU. In addition, the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation aims to protect human health and the environment from the potential risks associated with chemicals.
Despite local and global efforts, a significant gap remains in ensuring the safety of food systems and protecting public health, as evidenced by ongoing food contamination incidents. To reduce this risk, international, national, and regional regulations, policies, and objectives such as those established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the FDA, EFSA, and SAICM and its successor framework, are in place to ensure the safety of the food we consume. Continued efforts are needed to improve the safety of the food supply and minimize chemical exposure to protect the health of people and the environment.
Stakeholders continue to call for stronger actions to address HHPs to combat short- and long-term impacts on planetary health, and, with governments, they have signaled their determination to minimize the adverse impacts of pesticides on health and the environment. The political commitment expressed in the 2023 Bonn Declaration for a Planet Free of Harm from Chemicals and Waste is significant, but progress, has been slow. From the perspective of corporations, one common argument in defense of the continued use of pesticides is that they are needed to ensure food security and that local laws decided upon by sovereign countries are followed. However, there is a discrepancy between regulations in developed countries and those in LMICs.
With the emergence of the Green Deal, the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy asks Member States to reduce by 50% the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030. And yet, despite being banned for sale in high-income countries (HICs), companies based in these countries can legally produce and export HHPs to LMICs. While the burden of HHPs is mostly carried by the Global South, some of the hazardous pesticides exported from Europe find their way back in when food is imported and contains residues. Two countries in Europe have been leading by example – Luxembourg and Denmark. Luxembourg has banned the use of all products containing the herbicide glyphosate from 1 January 2021, while Denmark has implemented taxes according to the toxicity of pesticides to humans and the environment and used the money to reinvest in the agricultural sector, easing resistance from farmers.
Figure 2. Destinations of pesticides banned for use in the EU and exported to developing countries
Source: Unearthed and Public Eye (2020)
The way forward
We know that regulations to ban the use of HHPs have saved lives. Food systems must evolve to include strong social and ecological management of fields. While solutions to combat adverse impacts of dangerous chemicals and wastes exist, more ambitious regulations and knowledge dissemination are needed.
Whereas the success of reining in pesticides has been limited due to, among other reasons, the lack of regulations and asymmetry of power among regulators and large companies, there are examples of approaches to chemicals management that inspired positive change. The best known one is the Montreal Protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which has reduced the use of hazardous pesticides by replacing methyl bromide with less hazardous alternatives. The Stockholm Convention’s early action to restrict 12 POPs, and the Rotterdam Convention, which facilitates information sharing between states about hazardous chemicals entering international trade and about the regulatory actions taken, are good examples of efforts improving informed collective decision making.
There is enough scientific evidence to inform bold decision making in the sphere of food systems transformation and sound chemicals management. However, more work needs to be done to ensure that identified solutions are reaching decision makers, especially in the Global South. In this context, two opportunities for decision makers to demonstrate progress and commitment emerged in 2023.
First, the UN Food Systems Summit +2 in July 2023 built on the UN Secretary-General-led 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, which attested to both the urgency and the political will to do better to overcome all forms of malnutrition. The 2023 Summit was the first-ever opportunity for decision makers and practitioners to disseminate solutions about food systems transformation, overcoming coordination and implementation gaps. As of July 2023, 125 countries had designed or were implementing national pathways to achieve more sustainable food systems. Addressing the use of hazardous pesticides deserves more attention in this conversation. Outcomes from this global gathering deserve to be included in deliberations on how to tackle HHPs, and better alignment between public health and environmental protection policies should also be encouraged.
ICCM5 was another important milestone where countries and multiple stakeholders successfully negotiated a post-2020 platform for the sound management of chemicals and waste to succeed SAICM. The new Global Framework on Chemicals sets the 2035 target for stakeholders to “have taken measures” to phase out HHPs. ICCM5 also launched a Global Alliance on HHPs, a collaborative multistakeholder initiative to scale up global action on HHPs. This target complements the recently agreed Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). In its Target 7, countries agree, among other aspects, to reduce the “the overall risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half including through integrated pest management, based on science, taking into account food security and livelihoods; and also preventing, reducing, and working towards eliminating plastic pollution.”
As argued, dangerous chemical exposure affects the most vulnerable disproportionately. Although there has been progress, international agreements remain insufficient to cope with the adverse environmental and health impacts of pesticides and fertilizers. Stakeholders have thus recommended a set of priorities and transformative actions to minimize these impacts:
- Incentivize healthy and sustainable consumer choices and consumption;
- Fundamentally change crop management and adopt ecosystem-based approaches;
- Promote circularity and resource efficiency;
- Use economic instruments to create a level playing field for greener products and approaches;
- Adopt integrated and life cycle approaches for sound pesticide and fertilizer management; and
- Strengthen standards and adopt corporate policies for sustainable supply chain management.
Reducing inequalities will require decision makers to scale up options that allow for a replacement of HHPs. The Guidelines on Alternatives to HHPs, for example, offers options, including agroecology, crop rotation, microbial and semiochemical agents, and botanical pesticides. Moreover, beyond investing in agricultural robotics, drones, and algorithm-driven technologies, which are often benefiting big business but not necessarily the most vulnerable, countries must invest more in educating specialists, infrastructure, and reducing costs of implementation based on true cost accounting of food.
No country or discipline alone can drive the needed change at scale. The need for food system transformation is irrefutable, and chemicals management must be part of the menu of solutions.
While much remains to be done, several countries and cities are leading the transition towards more ecological and healthier options. Examples can be found in the 2018 decision of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament calling for all agriculture to transition to organic production within the next ten years. Over 550 German cities and municipalities have decided to manage their urban greenery partially or completely without pesticides. These examples prove that a healthier and more ecologically friendly future is possible. Thus, it is time to scale political momentum to deliver access to healthy diets, while safeguarding our environment and promoting equitable livelihoods. The incoming Presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28) taking place later this year has put forward an action agenda that places nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action. It has also proposed a leader-level Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, which could help scale political will to help steer the necessary transformation. It remains to be seen whether and how many countries will support the Presidency’s initiative.
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This Policy Brief is the tenth in a series featuring cross-cutting topics relating to the sound management of chemicals and waste. It was written by Nicole de Paula, Ph.D, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) contributor and author of ‘Breaking the Silos for Planetary Health – A Roadmap for a Resilient Post-Pandemic World.’ The series editor is Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, Tracking Progress Program, IISD.
Wicked Games: How Playing with Toys Can Expose Children to Harmful Chemicals
When it comes to exposure to chemicals of concern (CoC), children are one of the most vulnerable populations due to their rapid metabolic rate, high surface-area-to-body-weight ratio, and rapid growth of organs and tissues. Despite this, some CoC have been used in the manufacturing and production of toys. Young children put toys in their mouths and chew on them. They can also be exposed through inhalation and contact with the skin. Parents should not have to worry whether the toys their children play with pose a risk to their health.
Like many consumer products, toys are composed of a range of materials, such as plastics, textiles, and metals. The chemical composition of toys is often not known, and some of the chemicals that are present in toys, may have hazardous properties. Increased circularity and recycling rates of materials, for example, can lead to the introduction of hazardous chemicals as unintentional contaminants to the toys value chain. CoC in toys often enter the lifecycle during plastic production, painting, and coating, or through recycled plastic materials.
While CoC provide toys with certain functions such as fragrance, color, and plasticity, exposure can result in long-term health effects for children, interfering with the hormone system or cognitive development. Such chemicals include mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium. Lead affects brain development. Cadmium (found, for example, in batteries) is an endocrine disruptor that affects reproductive development. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like phthalates, are associated with higher rates of childhood cancer and endocrine disruption.
Since children are more vulnerable to the health impacts of such CoC, their use in toys is regulated, although that does not mean that, in practice, such chemicals are not present. For this reason, the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management (SAICM) considers toys a priority sector under its Chemicals in Products (CiP) Programme, which aims to accelerate the adoption of measures by value chain stakeholders, including governments, to track and control chemicals in the toy supply chain.
This policy brief explores efforts and initiatives to advance the issue of CoC in toys, particularly under the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under SAICM, launched in 2019. The project focuses on: lead in paint; chemicals in products, including toys, electronics, textiles, and building and construction; and knowledge and stakeholder engagement. Implemented in over 40 countries, the project also seeks to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the achievement of the SDGs. The brief highlights relevant tools and reports, as well as recommendations and opportunities the newly agreed Global Framework on Chemicals, the successor to SAICM, provides.
Impacts of CoC in toys
In 2006, one of every three toys in a study of 1,500 had potentially harmful lead, arsenic, and mercury. A four-year old boy in Minnesota, US, accidentally swallowed a heart-shaped locket that had broken off from a bracelet. Instead of passing harmlessly through the boy’s system, the locket contained a high concentration of lead. The boy died.
In 2021, US Customs and Border Protection seized a shipment of children’s toys from China, determining the items were “excessively” coated in unsafe levels of heavy metals, including lead and cadmium. The shipment included nearly 300 packages of Lagori 7 Stones, a popular children’s game in India where a ball is thrown at seven stacked square “stones.”
In 2022, a report published by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions found that harmful chemicals in toys were prevalent in US discount stores. Of the more than 200 tested products, more than half had at least one CoC, such as lead and/or phthalates, present in colorful baby toys and Disney-themed headphones, for example. Costume products like fake teeth made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, potentially harming reproductive and cognitive development.
More recently, the EU announced its aim of banning harmful chemicals, especially those that disrupt growth hormones, in imported toys under new rules proposed by the European Commission in July 2023. The Commission’s proposed Toy Safety Regulation aims to address loopholes in existing legislation that dictates safety standards in toys sold in the EU. For some chemicals, regulations in different countries are aligned, but differences remain in many areas between chemical requirements of toy safety policies. For example, the EU Toy Safety Directive severely restricts chemicals known, presumed, or suspected to have carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reprotoxic effects for use in toys. This differs from a chemical-by-chemical approach applied in many other toy safety regulations.
SAICM efforts to address CoC in toys
Although highly regulated in the EU, the US, and other developed countries, CoC in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are another matter. A 2021 SAICM/GEF project report reviews chemicals-related toy safety policies and regulations in selected LMICs, providing an overview of safety policies addressing CoC in toys and detailing activities SAICM should prioritize in those countries. The report focuses on those LMICs with the highest total import value of toys from China. The middle-income countries (MICs) reviewed (Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Thailand, and Viet Nam) have toy safety policies with provisions for the content of certain chemicals in toys, namely on material-specific migration limits for antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. In the low-income countries (LICs) reviewed, Tajikistan and Tanzania have some existing regulations. However, no information was found regarding toy safety policies in the other LICs, including Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Madagascar, Mozambique, Syria, and Yemen.
Other project outputs include a report on regulations for chemicals in toys in China, which provides an overview of related regulations that dictate the use of chemicals in toys produced in China, and a USEtox toys module, developed to help producers assess chemicals used in toy components and potential risks for children. USEtox is a scientific consensus model for characterizing human and ecotoxicological impacts of chemicals.
In addition, a 2021 UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-commissioned report, undertaken by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), found that 25% of children’s toys contain harmful chemicals. According to the report, chemical additives used in plastic toys that provide certain properties, such as hardness or elasticity, include plasticizers or softeners, flame retardants, surface-active substances (to create foam), stabilizers, colorants, and fragrances. While softer plastic toys lead to higher exposure to harmful chemicals than hard toys, exposure from inhalation is more prevalent than touching since children inhale chemicals diffusing out of all toys in the room. The report recommends ensuring children’s rooms are ventilated to avoid the inhalation of dangerous chemicals. Acknowledging that avoiding all plastic toy use would be difficult, it recommends prioritizing substances for phase out in toys and replacing them with safer alternatives.
The study explains that:
- since most plastic toys are not labelled, parents do not know whether an item is harmful;
- currently, no international agreement exists regarding which substances should be banned from use in toys;
- regulations and labeling schemes differ across regions and countries; and
- existing priority substance lists lack information on levels at which use of a CoC is safe and sustainable in product and material applications.
Researchers combined reported chemical content in toy materials with material characteristics and toy use patterns, such as how long a child plays with a toy, whether he/she puts it in the mouth, and the number of toys per household per child. Based on this, the study introduces a new metric to benchmark chemical content in toys, based on exposure and risk.
A SAICM policy brief aims to enhance understanding of CoC in products, and efforts to reduce them in toys, textiles, buildings and construction, and electronics. It notes that transparency of information about chemicals in global supply chains has been an emerging policy issue under SAICM since 2009. This led to UNEP’s CiP programme in 2015, under which SAICM proposed cooperative actions to address information gaps regarding the presence of hazardous chemicals in the four sectors.
The policy brief details measures to reduce CoC through:
- legislation and information system tools, such as regulations, standards, and certification mechanisms;
- 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
- consumption tools that focus on consumer behavior, including sustainable public procurement and ecolabels.
UNEP, in collaboration with the Baltic Environment Forum and within the framework of the SAICM/GEF project, developed an International Chemicals Management Toolkit for the Toys Supply Chain to facilitate regulatory compliance in the toy sector. Providing useful information, guidance, and tools, the toolkit aims to support stakeholders in the toys industry at multiple stages of the value chain, including:
- manufacturers of toys or toy parts from plastic pellets;
- assemblers of toys from individual parts;
- importers and retailers of toy products; and
- policymakers in the field of chemicals management, toy or product safety, and/or the toy value chain.
The toolkit aims to help stakeholders track and manage chemicals in toys, fulfil chemicals-related legal obligations, and ultimately protecting children from CoC in toys. With a focus on raising awareness on occurrences and risks related to CoC in toy materials at the early stages of the value chain, the toolkit: informs users on how to employ substitute and alternatives; presents guidance on how to convey information to consumers; and provides information, tips, and guiding questions for stakeholders interested in going further than regulatory compliance.
Figure 1: Steps for establishing and improving chemicals management in toy production
Based on the steps described in Figure 1 above, the toolkit’s sections (see Figure 2 below) elaborate on the steps:
- Compile background information, including on the challenges of CoC in toys, plastics and the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), and information on the risks and effects of CoC in the toys supply chain;
- Compile information on legislation and identify regulatory requirements for chemicals in toy products, depending on where the toy is placed on the market;
- Establish good, clear, and efficient communication with suppliers, for example, to get information on chemicals or to discuss potential quality problems with them;
- Build or review an inventory of chemicals in raw materials and in products, explain why such a chemical inventory should be used, and make the best use of it;
- Take action, including using guidance and tools for replacing a CoC with alternative chemicals, another technology, or a different material; and
- Inform customers by providing guidance on how to communicate on chemicals-related issues with downstream supply chains and end-use consumers.
Figure 2: Toolkit sections
As mentioned above, when children are young, they mouth toys, teethers, and pacifiers, all of which contain different chemical additives such as plasticizers, flame retardants, and antimicrobials that help optimize specific properties. However, many of these additives migrate from products into saliva since they are not covalently bound to the polymer chains. While assessing exposure pathways in children is crucial, pathways such as mouthing are often poorly quantified or neglected. In light of this, a study on Estimating mouthing exposure to chemicals in children’s products, supported by the SAICM/GEF project, developed a model to predict migration into saliva, mouthing exposure, and related health risks of different chemical-material combinations in children’s products. The study adapted an earlier migration model for chemicals in food packaging materials, as well as a regression model based on identified chemical and material properties. The model represents a green and sustainable chemistry tool that industries can apply to assess whether the chemicals in their products could pose a risk to children, as well as to evaluate safer alternatives during the design process.
In June 2023, SAICM convened a multi-stakeholder virtual Workshop on Tools and Guidance to Manage Chemicals in Toys to present the tools and guidance developed throughout the SAICM/GEF project’s duration, share key lessons from the project, and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and best practices among stakeholders. It was targeted at stakeholders working to enhance toy safety, including: industries in the toy value chain, such as raw material suppliers and manufacturers; retailers; regulators and government representatives; international standardization organizations; and civil society representatives.
Continuing to reduce CoC in toys going forward
According to the UNEP-commissioned DTU report, international standards are a key entry point for countries establishing chemical-related toy safety policies. To ensure success, standards and trade policies must be ambitious and flexible. They must facilitate the establishment of stricter safety requirements. Compliance and enforcement are also key to protecting children from chemicals-related risks in toys. Toy manufacturers must understand the regulatory requirements of the markets they are selling to. In addition, countries manufacturing or importing toys should establish enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with local regulatory requirements. However, small and medium-sized companies or companies not integrated into highly controlled supply chains of original equipment manufacturers or large retailers will face challenges that must be overcome.
It is also important to enhance collaboration among stakeholders in the toy value chain and improve synergies among regulatory requirements, industry capacity for compliance, transparency along the supply chain, and coordinated enforcement.
For example, in the EU, consumers have the right to know about the inclusion of harmful chemicals in products sold in Europe and the right to ask for information about them. Consumers can contact producers directly or do so through platforms like the Scan4Chem app if they suspect a product may contain chemicals above a certain limit that could be harmful to health and the environment. Substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are included in the EU’s REACH Candidate List of SVHCs. By law, suppliers must provide this information, free of charge, within 45 days from the date of request. The right to know applies to toys, as well as textiles, furniture, shoes, sports equipment, toys, and electronic equipment.
Other recommendations from the DTU report policymakers and other stakeholders could take onboard include the following:
- Countries should align policies targeting circularity and CoC, for example banning the use of recycled plastics in the manufacturing of toys or strictly controlling the source. Children’s toys made from recycled plastic contain toxic flame-retardant chemicals OctaBDE, DecaBDE, and HBCD. High concentrations of the toxic chemicals have been found in, for example, the Rubik’s cube toy, with 90% of examined cubes containing OctaBDE and/or DecaBDE. Toxic chemicals end up in toys when electronic equipment casings are used in recycling processes. Although the use of toxic flame retardants is prohibited in the EU, plastic recycling often happens in African or Asian countries where regulations are less strict, with chemicals ending up back in the supply chain. Thus, products made from recycled plastic should not be allowed to contain high concentrations of flame retardants, electronics casings should be removed before recycling, and stronger international limits on hazardous chemicals are needed.
- When adopting regulatory action, policymakers must ensure coherency across different regulatory domains, for example on products, chemicals, and waste, as well as across countries and regions, given the global flows of materials, products, and waste. Regulations and policies should be ambitious, as well as flexible enough to facilitate, rather than hamper, the establishment of stricter safety requirements where needed.
- Policymakers could establish platforms for training, dissemination, and information exchange related to CoC and for raising awareness about the risks from CoC for all stakeholders. Upstream small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and e-commerce could benefit from training on relevant regulations, laboratory testing, and customs rules, while policymakers would benefit from the dissemination of good practice policies.
The new Global Framework on Chemicals presents further opportunities to address CoC in toys. For example, participating governments have pledged to create a regulatory environment to reduce chemical pollution and promote safer alternatives by 2030, while industry has committed to responsible chemical management to reduce pollution and its adverse effects by 2030.
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This document has been developed within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project ID: 9771 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This project is funded by the GEF, implemented by UNEP, and executed by the SAICM Secretariat. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) acknowledges the financial contribution of the GEF to the development of this policy brief.
This Policy Brief is the ninth in a series featuring cross-cutting topics relating to the sound management of chemicals and waste. It was written by Leila Mead, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team leader, editor, and writer. The series editor is Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, Tracking Progress Program, IISD.