Chemical industry's flagship initiative for self regulation faces questions

Building public trust

01 June 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The industry's new flagship self-assessment program - the Global Product Strategy - does not require independent scrutiny of data collection processes. Some say it may not go far enough

WILL THE public and regulators trust a system of self-policing for the chemical industry if it is not subject to independent scrutiny?

This question was raised at the recent International Conference of Chemical Management2 (ICCM2) meeting in Geneva after Dow Chemical unveiled plans for exposing its product safety assessment procedures to outside experts. This plan goes beyond the Global Product Strategy (GPS - see below), the industry's new chemical safety system.

US producer Dow Chemical plans to implement a chemical-safety-assessment program, under which an outside panel will review the company's methodologies.

The company wants to introduce a system of assessing products in which the public can have real confidence, said David Keplar, Dow's senior vice president of sustainability, speaking on the sidelines of ICCM2.

"We want to ensure that our process has third-party validation so it's not just the company publishing this [data]," said Keplar, "We're using the University of Ottawa as the focal point. They're selecting a panel of subject-matter experts that will be independent and review our processes to gain confidence in [them]," he said.

Greg Bond, Dow's corporate director of product responsibility, said: "By early next year we should have a public report. We've asked them [the panel] to make a report which we'll make public." Bond added: "Then make a response which we'll make public. We expect them to say, 'You're doing well in some areas but we'd like to see some improvement in others'." Keplar said the university was being invited to add independent experts in toxicology, health and science, analytics, public policy and risk assessment.

The panel will review Dow's methodology as it moves towards a goal it introduced in 2005 of publishing data on all its chemicals by 2015. So far, it has published data on about 150 substances on a special website, www.dowproductsafety.com.

Dow aims to stay ahead of the GPS, which will allow all chemical producers to assess the safety of their product portfolio and release the results to the public. Introduced by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) in 2006, the GPS has a 2018 deadline.

Keplar said: "Our commitment to transparency happened before GPS, and we're very committed to work with the industry to lead that international way to move forward. We aim to be ahead of those targets by two to three years."

He added: "You can lead by talking about it, or you can lead with your feet and have real examples, which other people can emulate."

Also speaking from the conference, a top executive from Anglo-Dutch giant Shell said external verification would be necessary of the industry's product stewardship practices and health and safety data to build greater public trust.

Shell executive vice president for chemicals Ben van Beurden said: "We need to have more transparent reporting." There was still some sentiment that industry would develop programs such as the GPS to deflect genuine concern, he added.

TRUST – BUT VERIFY
The ICCM2 meetings had highlighted trust and credibility concerns, he said. "Is there a need for a verification process or an endorsement, from OECD [the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], for instance?" he added.

The sector held sideline meetings, including a roundtable attended by senior company executives and Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to discuss the implementation of GPS.

The week-long ICCM2 meeting had identified "chemicals in products" as an emerging issue of focus for international policy.

The ICCA said its product stewardship efforts would become more transparent, with a 2018 GPS target for companies to assess chemical safety and an interim 2012 target for companies to report on and openly discuss their progress.

The trade group also said it was committed to report on approximately 15-20 more product stewardship performance metrics in the future, "further allowing the global community to evaluate chemical industry progress." The industry's GPS initiatives would introduce a framework to let chemical producers assess the safety of their products and release the results to the public.

Major firms such as Shell, BASF and Dow had sought to be at the forefront of the development of product stewardship ideas and practice. Shell was one of the companies to have put resources into the GPS process to help set standards and develop a product-stewardship infrastructure.

ICCM2 was the second working meeting of the SAICM (Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management) international chemicals policy framework process (see below).

Additional reporting by Nigel Davis.

WHAT IS SAICM?
The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) is the UN/World Health Organization's framework to promote chemical safety. Its overall objective is to achieve sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that, by 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment. It was adopted by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

ICCM AND ICCM2
The first session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2006. It finalized and adopted SAICM. ICCM2, held last week in Geneva, Switzerland, undertook the first periodic review of SAICM's implementation.

ICCA
It is the International Council of Chemical Associations, but not every country is represented. Exceptions include India and China.

WHAT IS THE GPS?
The Global Product Strategy is the industry's contribution to the SAICM objective to achieve sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle. At ICCM, the ICCA introduced the Responsible Care Global Charter and GPS to enhance best practices within the industry and throughout the product chain. Together, these two initiatives represent the chemical industry's contribution to the UN-led SAICM

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By: Will Beacham
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