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A Toxics-Free Future


UN Group Aims to Cut Chemical Risks

An International Conference on Chemicals Management has agreed on a plan that could prevent the annual deaths of more than one million people exposed to toxic chemicals.

More than 800 participants, including ministers, industry and civil society leaders, have agreed on a strategy to reduce risks from chemicals at a weeklong U.N. Environment Program conference.

Chemicals are an integral part of peoples’ lives. Yet while they are essential and beneficial, they also can be hazardous. Managing those hazards is difficult because little is known about many of them.

The U.N. Environment Program notes only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 chemicals on the market have been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.

But, enough is known to determine they can be dangerous. UNEP reports the infant death rate from environmental causes is 12 times higher in developing than in developed countries. It says childhood lead exposure contributes to about 600,000 new cases of mental disabilities in children every year.

Part of the strategy conference participants agreed to on chemical management includes gathering better information about the chemicals that affect our lives and, in too many cases, harm us.

Olga Speranskaya is co-chair of IPEN, an international network of more than 700 organizations that fight toxic chemicals and works with people who suffer from contamination from farm pesticides, mercury hotspots and other toxic products.

“So, we came here and we are really pleased with the outcomes of this political conference because the delegates adopted … concrete risk reduction activities, which, if implemented, will result in the reduction of toxic exposure on human health and the environment," said Speranskaya. "Note that I say 'if implemented.'"

And implementation is a problem: Speranskaya says she does not believe the plan of action can be implemented by 2020 because the project is severely underfunded. She says the chemicals managements program only has $27 million available instead of the $100 million needed to implement the program.  

Nevertheless, conference delegates say they are committed to investing in efforts to prevent deaths and illness through sound chemical management by 2020.