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A Toxics-Free Future

Global chemical safety – less talk, more implementation

Chemical Watch Briefing
Global chemical safety – less talk, more implementation
Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical advisor, IPEN

Each year, hundreds of millions of factory and farm workers are injured by accidents, pesticides and industrial chemical exposures – a subset of an even larger population of people exposed to, and affected by, harmful chemicals.

One international agreement that should address the multitude of chemical safety struggles around the world is the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm). But there is a long way to go to fulfil Saicm’s chemical safety mission.
Han Hye-kyung is seated on the floor opposite me, at a low-slung table in a quiet non-descript restaurant in South Korea. Pale, uncomfortably thin, and now in her mid-30s, her body suddenly collapses and she falls sideways. Her mother deftly catches her and both act as if this is completely normal – because now it is.

After massive chemical exposures in an electronics manufacturing facility, Hye-kyung developed brain cancer in her early 20s. Removal of part of her brain impaired muscle coordination and speech. “I know I talk like an idiot,” she says, “but people do not realise I am fully aware of my condition.” Her out-of-control body personifies the true cost of the chemical industry’s products. Existing global chemicals treaties do not cover any of the chemicals Hye-kyung was exposed to, but Saicm should address them and the harms she and millions of others face in workplaces and communities around the world.

Delegates from more than 100 governments, along with representatives of the chemical industry and public interest groups, met recently at the fourth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4) in Geneva to tackle chemical safety issues under Saicm. If you just consider the number of resolutions produced by the meeting, you might think it was highly successful. But the best summary of the meeting came from Barbara Thomson, deputy minister of environmental affairs in South Africa using only four words: “Less talk, more implementation.”

Saicm’s roots in the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 and its broad multi-sectoral / multi-stakeholder scope make it highly relevant to all countries. However, it has a special value to the many low- and middle-income countries that still have very weak legal, regulatory, institutional and technical infrastructures for protecting their countries’ residents and environment from the harms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals and wastes. With the current, rapid expansion of chemical production and use in the developing world, there is a growing need for a stronger, more capable Saicm that receives proper political priority and adequate resources.

Its goal is to reform how chemicals are designed, produced and used in order to minimise and eliminate their harms. To do this, financing is needed to establish and maintain regulatory infrastructure and enforcement, along with a whole host of prevention and clean-up measures. However, at ICCM4, finance was missing from the meeting agenda and delegates allowed the only funding programme administered by the agreement – the Quick Start Programme Trust Fund – to quietly come to an end. Established in 2006 at Saicm’s beginning, the programme was extremely popular because it was nimble, not overly bureaucratic, and provided ranges of funding that could make real change without burdensome co-finance.

The Quick Start Programme Trust Fund was designed to enable an activities programme to get started. Unfortunately, the substantive funding for the long-term implementation of Saicm never arrived. Other sources exist but so far they either do not match the need or they have not been operationalised.

The persistent lack of financing for chemical safety has led to the catch phrase that funding should be, “sustainable, predictable, adequate and accessible”. The current model for satisfying these requirements is an integrated approach that contains three elements: dedicated external finance, mainstreaming chemical safety into the development agenda, and what is politely called, “industry involvement”. These elements should be developed further, but so far the approach has not yet provided any substantial influx of financial support for Saicm implementation.

Dedicated external finance includes a time-limited special programme which has been established with a secretariat held by Unep Chemicals to support institutional strengthening at the national level for Saicm, the three chemicals conventions, and the new mercury treaty. However, it specifically diverges from Saicm’s multi-stakeholder approach by excluding financing for public interest civil society organisations and the funds are insufficient. Including a pledge announced at ICCM4, the special programme currently has only approximately US $14m to cover five international agreements. According to an ICCM4 information document, the executive board of the programme has not yet been established.

Another possible source of external funding is the Global Environment Facility, which allocated US $13m for Saicm during its sixth replenishment, to cover a period of four years; appreciated but not nearly sufficient.

Ten years ago at Saicm preparatory meetings, donor government delegates raised expectations that international development assistance agencies would provide substantial funding for implementation. This has not yet occurred on a significant scale and needs to be pursued further. However, there is an obvious, but untapped, large source of funding for chemicals management: the chemical industry itself. This is what the “industry involvement” portion of the integrated approach should be about.

According to Unep, the global chemical industry has an annual turnover of approximately US $4.1tn per year. A very small levy of only 0.1% would yield more than US $4bn per year – an amount that is more consistent with the scale of what is actually needed and considerably more than what donor governments are ever likely to be able to pay. For the chemical industry, this cost is so small relative to its total turnover that it should not be absorbed into the price of products for the end user to pay. The aggregate costs of daily fluxes in the price of petroleum and other raw materials, for example, dwarf the amount a producer might need to pay annually in this kind of a cost-recovery scheme. Ultimately, the chemical industry should be responsible for the true cost of its products.

The true measure of Saicm’s success will not be cleverly worded resolutions put together in Geneva. Instead, it will be how policies can be put into practice and actually reduce and eliminate the harms, currently inflicted on workers and communities throughout the world.

A few real-world actions that should result from ICCM4, by 2020, include:

  • global elimination of lead paint – a known  hazard for more than 100 years and still widely used in developing countries. Of all children with elevated blood-lead levels, an estimated 90% live in low-income regions;
  • the wide-ranging phase-out of highly hazardous pesticides and the phase-in of agroecology, an approach widely accepted as the key to truly sustainable agriculture. The FAO Council called for the progressive ban of these farmer killers ten years ago;
  • publicly available information on chemicals in products for communities and workers rather than being stifled by confidential business information or the industry hiding behind weak legislation in developing and transition countries;
  • protective regulatory policies on endocrine disrupting chemicals that reflect how the endocrine system actually works, instead of what is convenient for chemical manufacturers; and
  • financing for Saicm implementation of at least US $1bn/year, with a substantial portion originating from industry cost-recovery.


Finally, we come to hazardous chemicals in electronics – perhaps one of the widest gulfs between policy and action on the Saicm agenda. Like that of millions of workers, in Han Hye-kyung’s case the company designed a toxic process, did not adequately protect her, refused to tell her what she was working with and then worked to deny her compensation after she developed cancer.

This year’s ICCM4 resolution re-states the case for information disclosure and much more, but the issues of design, production and waste make electronics a stunning case study of how badly chemical safety needs to address an entire lifecycle in practice.

Lunch is over and Hye-kyung is struggling to get into her wheelchair – not easy when you cannot control key muscles. When she finally stopped swaying and caught her breath she said, “You know … health is important.”

The views expressed in contributed articles are those of the expert authors and are not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.

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Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical advisor, IPEN