Progress and

David Anderson assesses what has been achieved in controlling chemicals that endanger human health and the environment and sets out priorities for further action

Almost ten years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, the international community affirmed that global environmental problems could not be tackled in isolation from development challenges.

As we prepare for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, we have an opportunity to celebrate the gains we have made since the 1992 Earth Summit and an obligation to renew our commitment to action. One area where progress has been considerable is in the sound management of chemicals.

When one travels to the Canadian North, as I have on several occasions, one becomes entranced by the beauty and purity of the Arctic landscape. But appearances can be deceptive. The Arctic is no longer a totally pristine environment. Over the decades, its ecosystem has accumulated toxic residues from farms and factories far away. These contaminants pose significant potential risks to the people and wildlife of the region.

Many of these substances are not used or produced in the North. They come from other parts of the world, carried on the great currents of air that circle the globe. They are most likely to settle and persist in colder climates like the Arctic, where they bioaccumulate in the food chain.

Exceeding guidelines
Residents of the North depend on traditional foods for their health and cultural survival – foods now contaminated with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Recent studies have shown, for example, that in some areas of the North, 40 to 65 per cent of women have levels of PCBs in their blood that are up to five times higher than the guidelines of our health authorities.

These chemicals play no favourites. No country is immune from their dangers. The fact that the health of children living both nearby and thousands of kilometres away can be affected by the same source of POPs emissions demonstrates the insidious nature of these toxins. It also means that no one country working on its own, no matter how diligent its efforts, can truly solve its POPs problem. The scope of the problem and other chemical management challenges demands global solutions.

As we approach the Johannesburg Summit, I would suggest that global attention on chemical management must focus on three priorities. Our first priority must be to ensure that international agreements on toxic chemicals are implemented. Second, we need to advance science and increase our knowledge of the impacts chemicals have on our health and environment throughout their life cycle. Third, we need to translate knowledge into action. In order to do that, we need to build the capacity to manage chemical threats effectively.
No one country working on its own... can truly solve its POPs problems
Chemicals are all around us, with tens of thousands currently in use and many more introduced each year. Many are crucial to our well-being. They have driven advancements in agricultural production and in the cure and prevention of illness. They have become an intrinsic part of our lives and are used in virtually all consumer products: cars, paper, textiles, electronics, building materials, food and medicine.

While the wide variety of chemicals we have created has in many cases improved the quality of life for us, there is currently a great deal of concern over the presence of chemicals in our environment and their implications for human health.

Over the last ten years, we have made important progress in collectively addressing chemicals through various intergovernmental agreements including: the Stockholm Convention on POPs, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure, the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Together, the international community has pursued these agreements out of a shared recognition of the truly global nature of the threat these chemicals pose to human health and the environment, a shared commitment to take strong action, and a shared conviction that financial and technical assistance is needed to help developing countries and countries with economies in transition strengthen their capacity to manage chemicals. We need to continue our collaborative efforts to implement these agreements. We need approaches to environmental governance that ensure greater compliance and attention to the capacity-building needs of developing countries.

Financial and technological commitments
Of great importance are the financial and technological commitments that have been made through the Global Environment Facility and by individual donors to make sure that developing countries and countries with economies in transition can get the assistance they require to help them commit to and implement obligations. More and more, as an international community we understand that this is fundamental to progress.

Effective international action requires a sound scientific base. High on our agenda must be a commitment to expand our scientific understanding of the effects of chemicals. As we are learning about the quantities and characteristics of the chemicals in our environment, the risks they pose and to whom, what we are realizing more and more is the vastness of our ignorance on the subject. We know little about the effects of long-term, low-level exposure to certain chemicals as well as how they interact with one another in our environment and in our bodies. Children, for example, are particularly vulnerable due to their relative size and weight, immature immune and metabolic systems, and their greater risk from accumulated lifetime exposure. Children breathe more, drink more and eat more food per body weight than adults. Their physiological immaturity can make their systems less effective at eliminating toxic chemicals and more susceptible to absorbing them. Their rapid brain growth makes them particularly sensitive to certain chemicals and to the risk of permanent damage. Children are more exposed to a number of contaminants simply because of their proximity to the ground where many harmful substances, such as lead, can be found, and because of their tendency to put their hands and play-things into their mouths.

We must commit to expanding our scientific understanding of the effects of chemicals. And we must also ensure that new knowledge is widely disseminated.

As scientists continue to unravel the mystery of how chemicals impact our environment and our health, this knowledge must be put into action. Global action must be accompanied by action at the regional and local levels. And our capacity to take action effectively to address the challenges posed by environmental threats such as chemicals rests, in large part, on our ability to build bridges between various sectors and work more effectively together.

Recent discussions on strengthening environmental governance have highlighted the need to take better advantage of synergies, to cross the sectoral stove-pipes that often exist and enhance cooperation – between governments, amongst United Nations organizations, and between the academic community, non-governmental organizations and the private sector – to ensure integrated decision-making and coordinated action.

As part of this effort to increase collaboration and understanding, two important events will take place over the next year in the lead-up to Johannesburg. The first of these is the meeting of the Health and Environment Ministers of the Americas taking place in Canada in March. The second is a similar meeting of Health and Environment Ministers of Africa scheduled for April. By bringing the health and environment issue together at the political level, new bridges and new understandings will be built. This should enhance the ability of Heads of State and Government to pursue a health and environment agenda as a key follow-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Understanding the interconnection between our health and the health of the environment that sustains us is central to the sustainable development of our world. When lead in our environment diminishes children’s ability to learn, when ozone depletion makes us vulnerable to UVb rays, when smog aggravates asthma and when climate change increases the dangers of viruses and pests as well as extreme weather events, our human potential is compromised and our prospect for development curtailed.

The hazards of poverty
We know that people living in poverty can also be disproportionately affected by exposure to chemical hazards. According to the World Health Organization, ‘insecticides of choice in the developing world are often older broad spectrum compounds belonging to... chemical families known for their acute toxicity.’ These products are usually more accessible because they are often cheaper. However, there are indirect human and environmental costs. Even in developed nations, low-income neighbourhoods are often located closest to landfills and urban industry which can be sources of chemical exposure. The sound management of chemicals also requires adequate resources to ensure the safest choice is made, and that there is proper handling, storage and disposal.
We must commit to expanding our scientific understanding of the effects of chemicals
It is clear that providing effective protection of our environments and the people who live in them will require innovation in the design and operation of our mines, farms, manufacturing plants, refineries, transportation systems, parks and other facilities that can potentially create waste and pollution. It requires effective life-cycle management of substances from the moment they are extracted from the environment in a raw state to the moment they are returned by some means of disposal.

And it would benefit from serious consideration by each of us as to which chemicals indeed contribute to our quality of life and which of the vast array and volume produced in the world today we could do without.

I applaud all of those people who have taken the chemical agenda so far in the last decade. I urge that this effort continue. As United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, ‘Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract – sustainable development – and turn it into a daily reality for all the world’s people.’ The upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development provides the international community with a crucial opportunity to make progress on the environmental dimensions of this goal. We must seize it to build partnerships for the action needed internationally and in our own back yards to meet our shared goal of healthy, prosperous people living in a healthy environment

The Honourable David Anderson, P.C., M.P. is Canada’s Minister of the Environment and President of the UNEP Governing Council.

PHOTOGRAPH: Natalia C. Mazzuchelli/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Chemicals 1997
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1994
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals