07 January 1994 00:00 [Source: ICB]
The number of chemical substances being produced has Increased rapidly in recent decades" but our knowledge of their affects is minimal. To try and fill in some of the gaps, the UN has strengthened its chemical safety programme.
By Geraint Roberts
NEWS THAT a new Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) has been set up in Geneva following an international conference in Stockholm last April may not sound particularly significant to the chemical industry. After all, other programmes such as the OECD's on chemical risk assessment and the UN International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) have been established for many years. But, surprising though it may seem, until Stockholm, there was no established meeting place for governments to discuss chemical safety. Consequently, a plethora of classification and labelling systems and various hazard and risk assessment methodologies sprang up around the globe causing confusion and wasting resources.
Concern about the risks associated with hazardous chemicals - particularly involving the use of pesticides - was highlighted in the 1994 report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), published while the conference was taking place. According to the report, the production of chemicals has soared in recent decades from around 65m tonne worldwide in 1970 to 400m tonne in 1993. This involves about 100 000 substances, of which about 1000 are produced in quantity.
The report quotes figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) claiming up to 5m people are poisoned each year by pesticides - 40 000 of them fatally. Developing countries suffer 99% of the deaths while using only 20% of the chemicals, says the WHO.
Although the ILO acknowledges the good safety record of the chemical industry in industrialised countries - including the Responsible Care initiative - it says the risks associated with such chemicals become much greater outside these controlled environments. Developing countries have many fewer controls on pesticides. Countries like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico have now become mayor pesticide producers and in some cases manufacture pesticides such as DDT which are banned elsewhere.
The need for action was explained in the opening address to the conference by Unep's executive director Elizabeth Dowdeswell, read by the assistant executive director Jan Huismans: As nations have enhanced their industrial infra-structure and developed agriculture, the production and use of chemicals has also increased. Given this situation, it is not suprising that the potential for inadvertent chemical releases has increased.
'We still have an incomplete knowledge of the potential hazards posed by many chemicals. Concerns still remain on the possible time-delayed responses and the frequent persistence of the chemicals dispersed in the environment. Response strategies, both national and international, have frequently been inadequate because of their sectoral approach. Most developing countries have not yet been able to build the appropriate infrastructure to improve chemical safety nationally.'
Sweden's environment minister, Olof Johansson, told delegates representing 126 states that many developing countries need help training and educating cadres of health and safety officials (known in UN jargon as 'capacity building') in order to control and handle effectively hazardous chemicals. 'OECD countries must take the lead in finding appropriate solutions, including the promotion of use of less hazardous chemicals.'
Environmental groups believe the huge gaps in our knowledge of the risks associated with chemicals justify strict application of the precautionary principle. In a paper prepared for Stockholm, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) claimed our understanding of the impact of chemicals on the environment has changed radically in the last five years. 'Scientists have begun to research and document problems that are less visible, more insidious, more difficult to measure, less predictable, and potentially impossible to control with conventional risk assessment and risk management approaches,' it said.
WWF believes more and more examples of the poisoning of species by chemicals is coming to light and that what is happening to wildlife may also be happening to humans. It claims European otter reproduction is being hit by the bioaccumulation of heavy metals and organochlorines in their fat and Canadian songbirds are dying after eating granules of the insecticide carbofuran.
The effects of all the chemicals present in the environment can never be thoroughly tested, claims the group, and so much greater emphasis should be put on the development of cleaner production processes and products. This is accepted up to a point by the chemical industry, as is illustrated by Cefic's attempt to get ELI funding for cooperative research in sustainable technologies (ECN 18 April).
The Stockholm conference was afterwards declared the first meeting of the IFCS, which in future will be based at WHO headquarters in Geneva. The next two meetings of the IFCS were also planned, one to review progress on chemical safety prior to the special session of the UN General Assembly in 1997 concerning implementation of Agenda 21, and the third in 2000.
Delegates adopted a resolution saying that 'a substantial use of chemicals is essential to meet the social and economic goals of the world community', but also they were aware of 'the potentially harmful impact on human health and the environment that adverse effects of chemicals may cause'. To promote the environmentally sound management of chemicals, the IFCS was established as a non-institutional meeting place where government officials can exchange information and make recommendations.
Indicative of the need to streamline this work was the fact that the conference was organised jointly by three UN bodies: the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), the ILO and the WHO. They had been nominated to oversee the setting up of such a forum by Agenda 21, the all-encompassing policy document on sustainable development signed by governments at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 outlines six programme areas for 'environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals including prevention of illegal traffic in toxic and dangerous products'. These same areas formed the basis of the discussions in Stockholm and their implementation is the responsibility of the UN International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). They are:
A whole range of targets for the first five of these programmes must be met by a strengthened IPCS by the second meeting of the Forum in Geneva. Some of them are decidedly ambitious; for example, in addition to those chemicals currently subject to risk assessments, another 200 should be evaluated and, if this goal is achieved, a further 300 by 2000. Harmonised approaches for performing and reporting the various types of risk assessments should be agreed 'as soon as possible'.
According to an ILO review of 15 countries, occupational exposure limits have been established for only a fraction of hazardous chemicals currently in use. Such limits, it says, have been set for just over 2100 chemicals, while it is believed that up to 8000 commercial chemicals are toxic.
Of the six programme areas, this one is most in need of coordination, says Fred McEldowney, CMA international issues director and head of the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA)s delegation in Stockholm. However, a harmonised methodology must give due consideration to the 'weight of evidence' in assessing risk, he says. This means going with the opinion of the majority rather than adopting an interpretation of the precautionary principle based on worse case scenarios.
The assessment targets set by the Forum are reasonable, says McEldowney, but represent the most that can be done given the availability of resources. In addition, the IPCS should develop educational programmes to boost the number of experts in chemicals risk assessment.
Technical work on classification criteria should be finalised by its second meeting, the conference decided, while harmonisation of classification systems and hazard communication systems, including labelling and safety data sheets, should be finished by 2000. Once this is done, an international agreement should be created to make the results legally-binding at national level.
Harmonisation in this area offers the chemical industry the happy combination of improving safety and stimulating international trade and, not surprisingly, the ICCA has recommended it receives the highest priority. Its only worry is unless progress is made soon, efforts may shift to a regional level, making the development of a global system more difficult.
Delegates from developing countries pressed hard for regional information exchange agreements and at least one bilateral agreement was agreed during the conference. The Forum recommended that regional information exchange networks should be established 'as soon as possible' and all UN countries should nominate by 1997 a designated authority for participation in the voluntary procedure of prior informed consent (PIC). This allows shipments of banned or restricted chemicals only with the prior permission of the importing country and is something Unep and many developing countries want embodied in a mandatory convention (ECN 9 May).
Countries which export chemicals subject to the PIC procedure should be able by 1997 to ensure export does not happen against the importing country's wishes, says the Forum. This includes setting up implementation and enforcement procedures.
The ICCA is happy for the PIC rules to be embodied in legislation provided they do not pose a non-tariff barrier to legitimate trade. It also wants promotion of the use of Material Safety Data Sheets in international trade.
A report will be drawn up for the next meeting on national risk reduction programmes. This is an area, says a conference resolution, where industry, in accordance with the polluter pays principle, has a particular responsibility to help. It can do this by developing clean technology and finding substitutes for harmful chemicals. Also, the recently adopted Code of Ethics on the International Trade in Chemicals should be applied by industry in all countries (ECN 13 June).
Risk reduction, especially in relation to pesticides, is seen as the most vital programme area by environmental and trade union NGOs. They want to see a shift away from the manufacture and use of more hazardous substances - ensured by restrictions or bans on chemicals.
The chemical industry stresses the point that risk reduction can be achieved without use reduction. 'Procedures for safe handling and exposure reduction are generally efficient approaches to risk reduction and can provide clear and generally preferable alternatives to product limitations,' says the ICCA. 'Phasing out or banning of certain chemicals can be done internationally only in exceptional cases due to the highly political nature of the necessary risk/benefit analyses which have to give consideration to local conditions of exposure as well as to the availability of fully assessed substitutes.'
But this doesn't satisfy the pressure groups. 'There is no question there is a massive death and poisoning problem with agricultural workers,' says Reg Green, HS&E officer for ICEF, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers' Unions. 'The chemical manufacturers generally operate under good conditions but the people who use their products often work in dangerous situations. In developing countries it is often too hot to wear protective clothing, the people are illiterate and cannot read packaging labels and there is very strong lobbying to make them use the chemicals.'
McEldowney says the situation is improving. 'The number of people dying from misuse of pesticides is smaller than it was ten years ago,' he says. 'However, there isn't any easy answer. Testing and labelling by itself isn't going to solve the problem.'
He points out that the product stewardship code of practice which forms part of the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Responsible Care programme was only adopted two years ago and not all large companies have implemented it yet.
Green says it is vital for employees to know details of their plant's emissions and wants this right-to-know principle to be coupled with the 'right-to-act'. This would give protection to the whistle blower in situations where a company has flouted the law and other attempts to solve the problem have failed. He has no illusions of the size of his task, pointing to the inclusion of a CIA representative in the UK delegation in Stockholm as indicative of the close relationship between government and management.
The chemical industry believes its Responsible Care programme is consistent with economically feasible risk reduction but Green is sceptical. 'The concept is a good one and more and more companies have signed up to it. But what happens after that? To be believable, it has to be underpinned by legislation.'
Kerstin Nibleaus, director-general of the Swedish National Chemical Inspectorate and conference chairwoman agrees: 'If industry took full responsibility most of these problems would not exist. I understand Responsible Care has been adopted in 35 countries but it is important companies implement the programme and there are still companies which don't do this. The gap between the best and the worst is increasing while some newly industrialised countries are not so keen on Responsible Care'.
Two more reports are to be published by the IPCS by 1997: one will examine the feasibility of reducing risks by extending pollutant release and transfer registers to more countries. The other will review risk reduction strategies for pesticides, covering environmental risks to surface and ground water as well as risks to human health.
Three other targets were set for 1997: 40 countries must establish poison control centres with clinical and analytical facilities; 50 states must introduce national systems for emergency response, including the training of personnel in those states where this is necessary; and 25 countries must implement systems for prevention of major industrial accidents in accordance with the 1993 ILO Convention on the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents.
To help countries strengthen their national capabilities to manage chemicals, guidelines for chemical legislation and enforcement are to be drawn up 'as soon as possible'. These are to be based on another ILO agreement, the 1990 Convention on Safety in the Use of Chemicals. To date, this has been ratified by only two states, Sweden and (rather surprisingly) Spain.
National profiles of current legislation and guidelines will be prepared for the second IFCS meeting. Long term, says the IFCS, national chemical databases need to be set up in all countries, comprehensive legislation should be enacted and enforcement systems established.
Increasing our knowledge of the risks posed by individual chemicals is one of the most important tasks the chemical industry faces. This is what 'sound science' is. The sooner such gaps are filled, the less emotional the industry-environmental groups debate will become.
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