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Factsheets and brochures

Addressing Chemicals of Concern: Key messages and lessons learned

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February 2024
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This document summarises lessons learned from the various project activities in three sectors: electrical and electronic equipment (EEE); building and construction; and toys. It also formulates key messages addressed to different stakeholder groups and provides links to guidance and tools developed under the GEF project

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Policy document

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 paintchemicals 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.

SAICM policy brief aims to enhance understanding of CoC in products, and efforts to reduce them in toys, textilesbuildings 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:

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

 Steps for establishing and improving chemicals management in toy production

Source: SAICM

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

Figure 2- Toolkit sections

Source: SAICM

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.

* * *

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.

 

Emerging Policy Issues: Chemicals in products
lead paint
Policy document

Greening Building and Construction for Sustainable Development

Chemicals of concern (CoC) in the building and construction sector is not a new issue. Childhood lead poisoning and chronic lung disease from the inhalation of asbestos fibers are well-known impacts of chemicals that have afflicted the sector over the decades. Building and construction is one of the most chemical-intensive sectors downstream of the chemical industry and the largest end market for chemicals, generating the highest chemical revenue of all sectors. Driven by rapidly accelerating urbanization, the global construction sector is expected to grow by 3.5% annually, with its chemicals market growing by 6.2% annually between 2018 and 2023.

Compared to other consumer products, such as textiles, electronics, and toys, products for the building and construction sector are used solely in the built environment context and are directly linked to the life cycle of buildings, from manufacturing and construction, through the use phase to demolition, recycling, or disposal. In addition, a building’s life cycle can last for decades or centuries, longer than other sectors. This results in a greater lag time between the design and manufacturing stages and the end-of-life stages, during which knowledge about chemicals and their risks may increase, as can the health and environmental impacts. At the end of life, building and construction products enter the waste stream as construction and demolition waste, which often represents the largest proportion of total waste generated in a country and poses considerable risk if not properly managed.

Negotiations are underway to develop a new global framework for the sustainable management of chemicals and waste to succeed the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which was established in 2006. Following a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions on the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020 (Beyond 2020) are expected to result in an adopted framework at the fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in Bonn, Germany, in September 2023. Managing chemicals in products, which includes the building and construction sector, is expected to be an integral part of the new framework.

This policy brief explores efforts and initiatives to advance the issue of CoC in the building and construction sector, including under a 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 and chemicals in products such as electronics, toys, and building and construction, as well as on knowledge and stakeholder engagement. The brief draws on a 2021 SAICM report on the building and construction sector, which recommends, inter alia, more circularity and a life-cycle approach in the sector, and highlights opportunities for the sector that ICCM5 and the Beyond 2020 framework provides. It also discusses a proposal regarding a sectoral approach for implementation when addressing CoC in products that was tabled by the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) for inclusion in the Beyond 2020 framework instrument.

What are chemicals of concern in the building and construction sector?

A range of chemicals have been and continue to be used in building and construction products in everything from insulation materials and sealants to paint, wood products, and carpeting. Building materials and construction activities use petrochemicals, industrial gases, and specialty chemicals, such as concrete admixtures, flame retardants, coatings, and adhesives, among others. Chemicals used in building materials can also be a passive emission source indoors, leading to deteriorating indoor environmental quality. As a result, some chemicals have been banned or have extremely restricted use, while others have risks of concern with knowledge and evidence still emerging. Asbestos, lead in paint used in buildings, brominated flame retardants and PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or “forever chemicals”) are some of the better-known ones. International efforts to ban and restrict their use have had some significant successes, although much remains to be done.

For example, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, asbestos was considered an ideal material for use in the construction industry because it could act as a fire retardant with high electrical resistance and was inexpensive and easy to use. Efforts to limit its use began in the 1970s when its toxicity and related health impacts became better known. When asbestos fibers become airborne and are inhaled, they cannot be expelled by the lungs due to their size. They are also sharp and penetrate internal tissues. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists asbestos as a serious carcinogen. It causes a range of diseases from breathing difficulties and lung disease to cancers of the stomach, ovaries, and kidneys.

Although relatively safe while encapsulated in glue or cement, asbestos becomes hazardous when the buildings are destroyed or torn down and it is released into the air. A recent example of this is in Ukraine, where many buildings built using asbestos have been destroyed during the ongoing war, creating millions of tons of highly hazardous, asbestos-contaminated rubble, constituting a long-term health hazard. Asbestos is listed as a category of controlled waste under Annex I of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, with exemptions for minor uses permitted in some countries. Even though worldwide more than 67 countries have banned the use of asbestos, many others have yet to ban its use, and even in countries where it is banned, asbestos remains in the buildings for decades and sometimes centuries. It is thus a “legacy” chemical, an issue that must be addressed.

Lead is another CoC in the building sector, used as a paint additive. Lead can cause brain damage, particularly in children, and damage kidneys, nerves, and blood, especially because of deteriorating lead-based paint that is peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, or damp, and can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact. Most developed countries banned decorative lead paint over 40 years ago, adopting regulations to control lead in paints used in homes, schools, and other buildings. However, studies conducted by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) in more than 55 countries found that high lead levels in paint still exist in most of them. In the US, for example, although lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978, it remains a legacy chemical due to its presence in millions of homes built before 1978 and continues to be a leading cause of childhood lead poisoning.

The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint, jointly led by the WHO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), helps prevent exposure to lead by promoting the phase-out of paints containing lead and helping countries pass legislation based on the Alliance’s Model Law and Guidance for Regulating Lead in Paint. According to the WHO Global Health Observatory on legally-binding controls on lead paint, as of 31 March 2023, 48% of countries reported that they have legally binding controls on the production, import, sale, and use of lead paints. Nonetheless, paints with lead are still sold in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), including in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. At the end of 2022, according to UNEP, more than 100 countries still had not set legal limits on lead in paint.

While lead and asbestos and their impacts have historically garnered much publicity, brominated flame-retardants (BFRs) and PFAS have more recently come to the fore, raising alarms. PFAS, for example, are used in building and construction materials, such as electrical wires and cables, thermal insulation foams, stain- and water-resistant carpeting, and paints, adhesives, and sealants for waterproofing. First used in the 1940s, they are now present in hundreds of products, and have been linked to endocrine disruption, thyroid disease, neurological and liver damage, and cancer. Because they break down very slowly, persist in the environment, are “nearly indestructible,” and resist grease, oil, water, and heat, they are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” BRFs, a relatively new generation of chemicals used as flame retardants, are still widely used in industrialized countries, although some are voluntarily banned by manufacturers. Currently, BFRs and PFAS are being addressed in some manner under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). For example, most commercial PFAS and BFRs are listed in the Stockholm Convention with restrictions on their production and use. Nevertheless, exemptions exist which allows them to be used in some building and construction products, for example, use of deca-BDE in polyurethane foam for insulation.

While these examples illustrate targeted efforts to ban or restrict use of specific chemicals, a holistic, sector-wide approach is also necessary to tackle CoC in the building and construction sector more broadly. Sectoral policies, for example, can provide an opportunity to chart the path forward towards addressing CoC in the sector and achieving sustainable development more broadly.

Initiatives to address chemicals of concern in building and construction

SAICM is at the forefront of international action to address CoC in products, including those in the building and construction sector. Chemicals in products and lead in paint are longstanding emerging policy issues (EPIs) and other issues of concern under SAICM. From 2020-2022, SAICM convened multiple Communities of Practice, which held discussions on these issues among interested and relevant stakeholders. The Chemicals in Products Community of Practice discussed, among others, CoC in building materials.

UNEP’s Eco-Innovation Manual and its building materials supplement presents the eco-innovation process through the example of a fictional company, elucidating the many innovations the sector could potentially take to transition to a pathway that is better for both human health and the environment. UNEP’s Chemicals in Products (CiP) Programme is a voluntary initiative designed to help all stakeholders who are seeking to improve the process for exchanging information on chemicals in products throughout their life cycle. It focuses on the four priority sectors of electronics, building products, toys, and textiles. In addition, the GEF’s Eighth Replenishment (GEF-8) Programming Directions include a Sustainable Cities Integrated Program that highlights the construction sector’s contribution to mercury emissions from cement production. It, thus, promotes circularity and integrated approaches in this regard. The Program will also support improved landfill management and increased energy efficiency in buildings and lighting systems, which can contribute to the reduction of hazardous chemicals, including POPs and mercury.

SAICM’s Buildings InfoHub provides information and resources for designers, architects, builders, and other actors in the construction value chain to help understand, identify, and reduce risks and impacts of chemicals in building materials. It details some of the chemical hazards in common building materials and products, such as: adhesives, sealants, and waterproofing; plastics; flooring; insulation; paints and coatings; and roofing. It also contains guidance and tools to conduct chemicals assessments at different stages of the value chain, as well as assess hazards. A chemical substitutes and alternatives page details key considerations to avoid “regrettable substitution” (when one chemical is replaced by another that is just as harmful or worse).

The InfoHub highlights policies from around the world that aim to phase out harmful chemicals in the sector and help transform markets towards safer alternatives, including those related to global chemicals inventories, cleaning up “forever chemicals” in construction, and action on asbestos and lead. Case studies spotlight best practice examples of various approaches to managing CoCs in the building and construction sector, including affordable housing developments in New York City and Minnesota, US, using materials that take human health impacts into consideration. The InfoHub also links to global databases of building products, which have been assessed against sustainability certifications or other chemicals-related criteria.

UNEP Report on Chemicals of Concern in the Building and Construction Sector

UNEP’s technical report on Chemicals of Concern in the Building and Construction Sector, developed within the framework of the GEF project on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under SAICM, provides an overview of the challenges that CoC pose in the context of products in the sector. The 2021 report: identifies and elaborates on 30 CoC; outlines linkages among CoC with respect to the building life cycle; and highlights existing gaps, challenges, and opportunities regarding increasing circularity in the sector.

The sector is one of the largest end markets for chemicals and its product range reflects the full diversity of outputs from the chemical industry, according to the report. One chemical may be used in multiple applications throughout the sector, affecting different stakeholders, and at different stages in the process. For example, certain short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs), addressed under the Stockholm Convention, could be used as plasticizers in flexible PVC material used for wood panel ceilings, flooring, or in plumbing, but also as flame retardants in paints for metal surfaces or interior walls.

Table 1: Chemical Revenues by Sector and End-Market Size

Table 1: Chemical Revenues by Sector and End-Market Size

Given the considerable lag between the design and manufacturing and end-of-life stages of building and construction products, by the time risk management action is taken for a CoC, the chemical has already been used in products and sold on markets sometimes for extended periods of time, the report states. Legacy chemicals are, therefore, important to consider when discussing CoC in building products. For example, use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Switzerland was widespread in coatings and joint sealants but was banned in 1972. The report flags that due to the long lifetime of these products in the built environment, PCBs are still routinely found in buildings during refurbishing or demolition operations more than 50 years after they were banned.

 At the end of life, the report notes, building and construction products enter the waste stream as construction or demolition waste, which may be considered hazardous at the national or international levels, such as under the Basel Convention. Such waste often represents the largest proportion of total waste generated in a country and is only growing due to the increase in infrastructure development across the globe. In the EU, for example, construction and demolition waste accounts for more than one-third of all waste generated.

 Despite this, the report explains, the building and construction sector represents significant opportunities for sustainable development, given the sector’s growth trajectory. It recommends adopting a more holistic approach, which combines addressing legacy chemicals with innovations in chemistry and material science, design practices, and regulation to increase chemical safety, reduce hazards, and increase resource efficiency. Beyond SDG targets directly relevant to chemicals and waste, such as SDG target 12.4 (on achieving the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle) and SDG target 3.9 (on reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals), all 17 SDGs can be supported through the sound chemicals and waste management. 

The report underscores the need for more research and collaboration to address emerging concerns about additional chemicals in the sector. It urges adopting a precautionary approach where evidence is emerging, or where data gaps exist on hazards and potential impacts.

Opportunities and recommendations detailed in the report revolve around the following:

  • Increasing information transparency on chemicals and ensuring the flow of information along the entire life cycle of building products. As information on use and concentration levels is still scarce, action on increasing transparency could build on existing initiatives, such as health product declarations developed under voluntary building certification schemes (e.g., Leadership and Energy Environmental Design, or LEED) or databases providing occupational safety information for construction workers, such as the German GISBAU initiative. Furthermore, available information on CoC uses in building products often reflects the context of their application in specific products and industries in developed countries, as well as the identification of potential risk. Thus, the current results and available knowledge might not fully reflect the situation in developing countries and economies in transition.
  • Designing new buildings for circularity and using products that support the sector’s transition to circular models and retain the highest possible value at the end of life. Potential chemicals-related impacts of materials along the entire life cycle of buildings should be evaluated, and benign chemicals and recyclable materials should be developed through green and sustainable chemistry innovation. When CoC cannot be avoided, contaminated materials should be separated from uncontaminated materials at the end of life.
  • Minimizing the impacts of legacy chemicals and barriers to circularity for existing buildings and developing new technologies for recycling. Barriers in the context of legacy chemicals should be addressed, for example, by managing construction and demolition waste containing CoC, such as POPs, in as sound a manner as possible to minimize their negative impacts. Efforts should also be made to avoid reintroducing CoC into secondary raw materials, and to advance research and development of technologies for the sound recycling of building products that contain CoC.
  • Undertaking targeted regulatory action to identify, assess, and address CoC in building products, based on emerging scientific knowledge, to ensure protection of human health and the environment at all stages of the life cycle. This could include advancing knowledge on applications and potential occurrences of identified CoCs, such as POPs, in products relevant to the sector, as well as mandating and incentivizing phaseouts of individual CoC from products. Where substitution of CoC is not technically feasible, regulators must ensure adequate training and protection of, for example, construction workers and the general public. In addition, regulators should evaluate if regulatory requirements for the building and construction sector may have consequences for chemical use or material choices that, in turn, can cause adverse effects on human health or the environment.

IOMC proposal for the Beyond 2020 framework

In an effort to operationalize some of these recommendations going forward, the IOMC has proposed three Implementation Programmes for the Beyond 2020 framework that adopt a sectoral and value chain approach to chemicals and waste management more broadly to improve circularity. The proposal calls for:

  • developing integrated national chemical management systems and capacities in all countries and regions;
  • integrating sound chemicals and waste management in chemical-intensive economic sectors and value chains (which the building and construction sector falls under); and
  • integrating sound chemicals and waste management within sustainable development objectives and decision-making processes.

The Programmes would aim to strengthen implementation of the Beyond 2020 framework through inclusive stakeholder and sectoral engagement and action, knowledge sharing, multi-stakeholder collaboration, and mobilization of additional resources. The Implementation Programmes would directly link to, and support implementation of, the proposed strategic objective and targets of the framework. They are also consistent with the three dimensions of integrated chemicals and waste management presented by the IOMC at the fourth meeting of the intersessional process considering the Strategic Approach and sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020 (IP4) in the fall of 2022.

To advance and inform about its ideas and proposal, the IOMC organized two workshops on advancing global chemicals and waste management in chemical-intensive economic sectors and value chains and industries. In January 2023, building and construction was discussed as a candidate sector for implementation. In June, discussions addressed guidance to support strategies and a possible global programme on advancing chemicals and waste management in economic industry sectors and their value chains.

Going Beyond 2020

We now know that business-as-usual in the building and construction sector is not an option. Whether it is managing legacy chemicals or integrating into products, from the beginning, materials that are better for the environment and human health, transitioning towards safety, sustainability, and circularity along the entire life cycle of the sector is crucial. Advancing and implementing recommendations outlined in this Policy Brief could help ensure the sector provides a meaningful contribution to the sound management of chemicals and waste in the Beyond 2020 framework, and to sustainable development more broadly.

* * *

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 eighth 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.

 

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