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UN report warns of consequences of chemical intensification

A UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report released this week lists hazardous chemicals among the top five global death causes and calls for urgent and coordinated action by governments and industry. In their “Global Chemicals Outlook” UNEP highlights an increasing “chemical intensification of the economy” but also emphasises how sound chemicals management can support a greener economy and lead to major economic benefits.

According to the report the value of the chemicals industry has grown from 171 billion USD in 1970 to 4.12 trillion USD by 2010. OECD countries still account for the bulk of world chemical production, but the production, use and disposal of chemicals is steadily shifting to developing countries and countries with economies in transition where chemicals regulations and safeguards are weaker. In Africa and the Middle East an average 40 per cent increase in chemical production is expected between 2012 and 2020, with Latin America expected to see a 33 per cent rise, according to the report.

Poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals contribute to more than a million deaths every year worldwide. This figure is among the top five leading causes of death globally, after HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, road traffic accidents and malaria.

– Sound chemicals management is as valid an area as education, transport, infrastructure, direct health care services and other essential public services, comments Maria Neira, director for public health and the environment at the World Health Organization.

Poor chemicals management accounts for multi-billion dollar costs worldwide, most of which are not borne by manufacturers or others along the supply chain, but instead by social welfare systems and individuals. One example of costs of chemical-derived health problems is pesticide poisonings in sub-Saharan Africa, which equal the costs of basic health service aid to the region (excluded aid focusing on HIV/AIDS).

UNEP recommends that financial costs throughout society associated with the production and use of chemicals should be further analysed. “While it is not possible to give an economic estimate of the global chemical risks to the finance sector, the costs incurred in a few specific cases demonstrate that they can be significant,” states the report and highlights the Bhopal disaster in India as one example (3.5 billion USD).

A list of which products are most likely to contain Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) is also included, building on SIN List data presented by MSCI ESG Research. Household chemicals are most likely to contain SVHCs, followed by plastics and rubber (such as toys), and textiles and clothing. The SIN List is also highlighted in the report as one useful tool for chemical hazard assessment and chemical and product prioritisation.

– ChemSec welcomes this report, which clearly shows that the increased production and use of chemicals is one of our major threats globally. But more importantly, it also highlights possibilities to overcome this threat, where the SIN List is among the listed solutions. We now hope that this report will lead to the necessary action, says Anne-Sofie Andersson, ChemSec director.

The “Global Chemicals Outlook” report once again highlights the UN 2020 goal to reduce negative effects of chemicals, and follows renewed commitments at the Rio+20 summit in June to prevent the illegal dumping of toxic waste, develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in products, and increase the recycling of waste. In two weeks time delegates from around the world meet in Nairobi for UNEP’s third International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM3).

UNEP “Global Chemicals Outlook” report

UNEP press release