A further step

Kjell Larsson says that global cooperation is needed in the sound management of chemicals

The use of chemicals has been of major importance for the development of today’s society and has contributed to the current prosperity in large parts of the world. We benefit from it in many ways, in pharmaceuticals, plastic, preservatives, detergents and paints as well as in many other areas.

But in addition to all the benefits, the use of chemicals also contributes to the downside of prosperity. Their widespread use has been and still is a serious threat to the environment and human health. We do not know the full effects on future generations of these chemicals, but we know that foetuses and children are particularly vulnerable.

During the last decade – since the Rio Summit and the adoption of Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 – substantial progress relating to global and international cooperation has been made in the chemicals field. In all this work, UNEP has played a central role.

One recent major achievement in the international work for the sound management of chemicals is the successful conclusion of negotiations and the signing of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Stockholm in May 2001. It was a great honour for my country Sweden to host the Conference of the Plenipotentiaries.

It is now time to take one step further. I am convinced that strengthened international cooperation is necessary in the field of chemicals. This should/could be achieved through the elaboration of a global strategy for the sound management of chemicals. At its 21st meeting, the Governing Council gave UNEP a mandate to investigate the merits of a strategic approach to international chemicals management. The findings of UNEP’s investigation will be discussed at the UNEP/Global Ministerial Environment Forum meeting in Cartagena in February 2002. We will then have the possibility of taking decisive steps towards an increased global understanding and common approach to the sound management of chemicals.

Sweden has a long tradition of an active and ambitious chemicals policy. Over the years we have learnt more about chemicals, and we have taken action against some of the most dangerous ones. During the same period however, new threats have unfolded, new dangerous substances have been identified and new ways of exposure have been discovered. Moreover, consciousness among consumers and users of chemicals about the environmental and health impact of the use of everyday products has increased.

Against this background the Swedish Riksdag (Parliament) recently adopted the New Chemicals Policy as proposed by the Government. This has been adopted in order to achieve the Environmental Quality Objective: A Non-toxic Environment. This Objective is one of 15 Environmental Quality Objectives adopted by the Riksdag in 1999, to be achieved within one generation (up to 2020).

A ‘non-toxic environment’ equals one free from synthetic substances and metals that represent a threat to human health or biological diversity. This means that the levels of substances that occur naturally in the environment must be close to background, while the levels of synthetic substances must be close to zero.

The Chemical Policy comprises interim targets and definitions of earlier adopted guidelines. As a starting point, Sweden considers that the great lack of knowledge about the health and environmental effects of chemical substances in products represents a fundamental problem in efforts to achieve a non-toxic environment. To achieve the objective within a generation, it is essential to find a solution to this as soon as possible. Large quantities of substances are marketed despite the fact that we do not know enough about their effects and properties.

Tackling bioaccumulation
The new Swedish Policy on Chemicals is focused, in particular, on the elimination of the use of substances that are persistent and liable to bioaccumulate. We believe this is necessary even if we do not have full knowledge of the toxic properties of the chemicals. History has taught us that substances with these properties might give rise to harmful effects that are difficult to detect. Once such effects are found, the substance may be so widespread in society and the environment that it is very complicated, if at all possible, to eliminate it. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) provide one example of this. Other important elements of the Swedish Policy are the requirement for phasing out cadmium, lead and mercury and the stipulation that new products should, wherever possible, be free from carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances.

Sweden will not be able to achieve all this by solely relying on national measures and actions. As a first step it is necessary to find an understanding within the European Union. But, to be really successful, action is necessary on the global level.

A revision of the Chemicals Policy and legislation is also now taking place within the European Union. It will be based on the proposal from the European Commission presented in February 2001 in the White Paper, Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy, as commented on by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. This means that it will include:

  • A coherent system for existing and new chemicals to ensure that sufficient information is available for all chemicals.

  • A responsibility to generate data about chemicals, placed on those who produce and market them.

  • Registration of all chemicals above a certain production tonnage per year.

  • An authorization scheme for the use of chemicals of very high concern for which no alternatives yet exist.

  • Transparency of information about chemicals and free public access to it.

A number of agreements have been reached in recent years to reduce the negative effects of chemicals that might be disseminated in the environment and to monitor and limit export and imports of hazardous ones.

It is now important that these agreements – in particular, the Stockholm Convention on POPs and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure – are ratified and implemented as soon as possible.
We do not know the full effects on future generations of these chemicals
It is, however, obvious that the chemicals control system we have today is not good enough for the protection of the environment and human health. The global production of chemicals has increased from 1 million tonnes in 1930 to 400 million tonnes today and many of the chemicals used – tens of thousands on the European market – have been placed on the market without restrictions and with no knowledge about their properties. This means that we are faced with a huge number of synthetic substances of which we know little – and with combinations of substances of which we know even less.

The chemicals safety agenda must thus be advanced. Important work has been done by the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS). The adoption of the Priorities for Action beyond 2000 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in October 2000 is certainly an important step. But we need to go even further.

Prevention and precaution
The lack of full scientific knowledge of the long-term effects of chemicals on human health and the environment should make us much more careful when using them. We should act in a much more preventive and precautionary manner. Risk reduction strategies – together with enhanced coherence and efficiency among international activities related to chemicals – should strengthen already ongoing work. We need to increase our knowledge of the intrinsic properties of chemicals. This could be done through increased international cooperation in generating and disseminating data. To act in a preventive way, substitutes and alternative technologies need to be developed and used.

Trade-related issues should be looked into. One problem is illicit trafficking. We need strengthened international cooperation in tackling this problem. Another area of great concern that we need to discuss is the diffuse dissemination of chemicals through goods. We have, through lack of knowledge, allowed some very hazardous chemicals to be spread all over the globe and be discarded with our household waste. We should see to it that the producers of these goods take up their responsibility. International standards for placing chemicals on the market could facilitate their control and use.

Mercury and certain other heavy metals and their compounds are known to be transported over long distances around the world and can be found far from the site of their origin. Global action on mercury is called for. I therefore welcome the decision at UNEP’s 21st Governing Council to carry out a global assessment of mercury and am looking forward to the results and recommendations from this initiative. Similar assessments are needed on certain other heavy metals. The scientific understanding of heavy metals and their compounds needs to be improved as regards their sources, transport and pathways, as well as their socio-economic effects.

UNEP should, in this endeavour, work with the assistance of an open-ended ad hoc working group including non-governmental organizations in the fields of public interest, science and labour, as well as with the private sector. In undertaking these tasks, the circumstances of developing countries and countries with economies in transition should be taken into account

Kjell Larsson is Sweden’s Minister for the Environment.

PHOTOGRAPH: Claes Grundsten/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:
Kjell Larsson: Now for vigorous action (The Environment Millennium) 2000
Malmö Ministerial Declaration (The Environment Millennium) 2000
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals