Chemicals are essential to many household and industrial activities, but they also pose threats to humans, wildlife, and ecosystem health. The World Summit for Social Development (WSSD) in 1995 called for developing “a strategic approach to international chemicals management” by 2005, and set a 2020 target to minimize the significant adverse effects of chemicals on human health and the environment.
Since then, the international community has taken some important steps, adopting multilateral agreements on prior informed consent (PIC), persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and mercury, as well as continuing prior work on the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. An overarching policy process, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), was established in Dubai in 2006. While some progress has been made, the ambition for an overall strong post-2020 regime on chemicals and waste has not yet been achieved.
To support negotiations toward a post-2020 regime, in 2019, the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) called for review of evidence published within the previous decade (Resolution 4/8) to support further discussion at UNEA-5 and other international forums working toward sound management of chemicals and waste. Following on from this, in 2020, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published a major report titled, ‘An Assessment on Issues of Concern: Chemicals and Waste Issues Posing Risks to Human Health and the Environment.’ The report highlights challenges and opportunities for sound chemicals management, and proposes policy and management options.
This policy brief provides a summary and perspective on that report, in light of the most recent developments on chemicals and waste.
The eight issues identified under SAICM
The 2006 Dubai Declaration and Overarching Policy Strategy called for the SAICM process to identify “emerging policy issues” (EPIs), based on specified criteria that include the magnitude and impacts of the problems, their cross-cutting nature, and the status of knowledge and action around those issues, with the aim to avoid duplication of efforts. To date, the SAICM process has identified six EPIs, namely:
- chemicals in products;
- endocrine disrupting chemicals;
- environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants;
- hazardous substances within the life cycle of electrical and electronic products;
- lead in paint; and
- nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials.
Two other “issues of concern” have also been highlighted for action:
- highly hazardous pesticides; and
- per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
This section provides a summary of these issues, as reflected in the UNEP report.
Chemicals in products (CIP), including those used in many consumer items, are not always listed on labels. The CIP programme, launched by UNEP, SAICM, and the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) in 2015, promotes information exchange about chemicals of concern so that all users can make informed choices. That includes not only the companies within the product supply chain, but also others, such as designers, consumers, waste managers, and users. This is truly a global challenge because product life cycles often span different countries – they are made in one country, used in another, and finally recycled or disposed in yet another.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) affect the characteristics of sexual organs and reproduction in humans and animals. More than 1,400 chemicals in pesticides, biocides, industrial chemicals, cosmetics and drinking water are thought to be EDCs, but only a small number have been screened by regulators. The report suggests that including EDCs in the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals – a system for the classification of chemicals with the use of internationally consistent labels, safety data sheets, and easily understandable symbols – would help countries regulate EDCs in a coordinated manner.
Environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants (EPPPs) include drugs used to treat people and livestock, which cause ill effects when released into the environment. The impacts include antimicrobial resistance, which is linked to the rise of ‘superbugs.’ Action on this issue would mean that countries strengthen their own regulatory and voluntary frameworks to avoid improper prescription and overuse of antibiotics, and organize take-back and sound disposal of unused or expired drugs. The report calls for conducting risk assessment of drugs – especially those that were licensed before environmental risk assessment systems were put in place – based on criteria such as sales data, ecotoxicity, and efficiency of wastewater treatment to counter their impacts.
Hazardous substances in the life cycle of electrical and electronic products (HSLEEP) contain heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. Actions to reduce the impacts of HSLEEP would include changes to the design and composition of products to minimize the use of hazardous substances, and management of recycling methods to avoid releases of chemicals into the environment. As noted in the report, this is a major issue for many developing countries and economies in transition (EITs), where informal recycling methods expose women and children who work in those industries.
Highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) are those that cause severe and irreversible harm to human health, the environment, and sustainability of agriculture. While the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have developed codes of conduct and management guidelines, implementation is often patchy. Capacity building, information sharing about pesticide use, toxicity, and exposure, and steps toward non-chemical alternatives are all needed. For example, agroecology techniques and integrated pest management would help reduce risk. FAO is currently in the process of drafting a Global Action Plan on Highly Hazardous Pesticides to reduce and manage HHP use.
Lead in paint is a neurotoxin, especially dangerous to children. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (GAELP), initiated as an international partnership in 2009, aims to have all countries adopt legally binding measures to control the production, import, sale, and use of lead paints. As of December 2021, just 43% of countries had done so. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is helping 40 countries to introduce legislation, and also works with some paint manufacturers to phase out the use of lead paint. In a number of countries that already have laws restricting lead paint, measures for effective monitoring and enforcement are still needed, according to the report.
Nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials (nanomaterials), while composed of known chemicals, may pose new threats. For example, the effects of inadvertently inhaling or ingesting nanomaterials are often unknown. Vehicle tires are one example of a common product containing nanomaterials that may be released into the environment during use, recycling, and disposal. In the EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, some information-sharing mechanisms and voluntary partnerships have begun, including the Malta Initiative that supports OECD guidance and testing development for nanomaterials. The report recommends that a common definition of nanomaterials be adopted.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are manufactured chemicals containing linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Products containing PFASs include many that resist oil and water, such as rainwear, non-stick cookware, and carpets. Being present in many household products, they pose a high exposure risk. PFASs may have negative impacts on immune system function and cognitive function in children, and are linked to type 2 diabetes in women. Long-chain PFASs are listed under the Stockholm Convention on POPs. A phased approach to ending the use of PFASs except for “essential use” purposes is needed, according to the report.
The eleven other issues of concern identified in GCO-II
In 2016, UNEA requested UNEP to provide an update on EPIs and other issues “where emerging evidence indicates a risk to human health and the environment” (Resolution 2/7). UNEP published a report titled, ‘Global Chemicals Outlook II: From Legacies to Innovative Solutions’ (GCO-II), in April 2019. GCO-II identified 11 “other issues” of concern that pose risks to people and the environment, drawing on assessments done by governments or intergovernmental organizations. They are:
- arsenic, a heavy metal;
- bisphenol A (BPA), used, for example, in durable plastics for water bottles and protective coatings on vehicles and machinery;
- cadmium, used in batteries and solar cells;
- glyphosate, a weedkiller;
- lead, a heavy metal which, besides its usage in paint (addressed above), is also in batteries, ceramics, and other items;
- intentionally added microplastics in products, such as the ‘microbeads’ in some detergents and facial cleansers;
- neonicotinoids, pesticides that affect the nervous system of insects;
- organotins, used as biocides in products such as anti-fouling paint for marine vessels;
- phthalates, used in solvents and plasticizers to improve the flexibility of plastic items;
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found in smoked meats, mothballs, and other consumer goods; and
- triclosan, an antiseptic used in personal care products.
Many of these chemicals are classified as potential carcinogens and have other adverse health impacts in humans and animals. Some pose the risk of bio-accumulation as concentrations in the body tend to increase over time. Many are transported across the globe through water, soil, and atmospheric systems, thus posing transboundary issues that no single country can manage on its own. Clean-up from the environment is difficult or unfeasible; therefore, the UNEP report calls for addressing risks at every stage of the product life cycle, from design through to usage, recycling, and disposal.
As noted in the report, regulating, and reducing the use of chemicals with the most troubling impacts will also have many benefits. For example, more than half the world’s usage of glyphosate is for crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate this weedkiller. Reducing and eliminating the use of glyphosate would encourage better agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and integrated pest management. Managing the risks would help avoid intergenerational impacts, for example, for low-income populations that are thought to be more exposed to phthalates in cheap building and household materials such as vinyl, food wrappers, and takeaway containers.
Mutually supportive processes and frameworks
Section 5 of the UNEP report presents a “thought starter” on avenues and means of future work, highlighting, among many different possibilities, the following:
- Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) allow for addition of new issues of concern to come under their purview. For example, the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes amended its annexes in 2019, to bring plastic waste within its scope. Similarly, the Rotterdam Convention, which covers prior informed consent and information exchange regarding the movement of hazardous chemicals, the Stockholm Convention on POPs, the Minamata Convention on mercury, and the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances all may include listings of new chemical hazards as they become known.
- International reviews and risk assessments are conducted by multilateral organizations, including WHO, FAO, UNEP, and others. Additionally, the IOMC was established in 1995 to strengthen cooperation and increase coordination in the field of chemical safety. Besides the flagship GCO, UNEP also publishes the Global Waste Management Outlook. OECD’s work in establishing standard testing guidelines and protocols for good laboratory practice provides a foundation for implementation of sound chemicals management.
- The International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM), the governing body for SAICM, will consider options for a post-2020 framework for sound management of chemicals and waste when it convenes for its fifth meeting (ICCM-5) in September 2023. Concurrently, negotiations are ongoing toward establishing a science-policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution. Such a panel would be a counterpart to existing science-policy panels, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). These processes are also relevant to achieving SDG 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.
According to an IOMC proposal to be considered within the SAICM process, a post-2020 framework for integrated chemicals and waste management should include:
- developing basic national chemical management systems and capacities in all countries;
- integrating chemicals management in key industry sectors and product value chains; and
- integrating chemicals management with sustainable development issues and initiatives.
At an intersessional meeting of SAICM, which took place from 29 August to 2 September 2022 in Bucharest, Romania, delegates developed a draft of a single consolidated document for the future post-2020 framework, to be fleshed out in subsequent intersessional meetings leading up to ICCM-5.
Looking ahead: Creating a strong framework for chemicals management
GCO-II found that global chemical production capacity of 2.3 billion tonnes in 2017 is set to double by 2030. According to UNEP’s assessment of issues of concern, the existing multilateral regime, which addresses specific chemicals and chemical groups, leaves many gaps. Some substitutions for hazardous chemicals also turn out to be “regrettable substitutions” that have equally negative impacts. Rapid changes sparked by adoption of new technologies and the changing global environment are meanwhile posing new challenges.
A strong policy and programme framework on chemicals would include the ability to effectively track national and regional regulatory actions that signal emerging priorities, the UNEP report suggests. It would engage a wide range of stakeholders in the governance of chemical and waste management, beyond chemicals experts, such as law scholars, social scientists, and civil society organizations (CSOs) who would bring a sharper focus on social and environmental concerns relevant to chemicals management.
Ultimately, the sound management of chemicals will not take place in isolation from efforts to address the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. A strong policy and management regime to address pollution and waste must be part of the global quest for a sustainable planet.
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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 acknowledges the financial contribution of the GEF to the development of this policy brief.
This Policy Brief is the third in a series featuring cross-cutting topics relating to the sound management of chemicals and waste. It was written by Delia Paul, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team leader and writer. The series editor is Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, Tracking Progress Program, IISD.