Implementing the plan
the decisions taken on chemicals
1992 Earth Summit have been put into practice
Chemicals provide all the elements and tensions for a good case study in sustainable development. They are essential
for economic development but carry with them the risk of environmental danger.
The world community's social and economic goals cannot be met without the substantial use of chemicals. Industry,
responding to society's needs, has given it a vast array of products. Many have been heralded as 'ideal' on their
release: some have been found later to be less so.
It should be possible - as today's best practices demonstrate - for chemicals to be manufactured, imported, exported,
processed, transported, distributed through commerce, used and disposed of in ways that protect human health and the
environment. But potential for human exposure and environmental pollution arises at all stages. Many governments have
already decided that the risks from some chemicals are too great. Much still remains to be done to ensure the
environmentally sound management of others.
Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 - the Programme of Action for Sustainable Development that came from the United Nations
Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - is the framework upon which the international chemicals agenda is
built. And two recently established entities - the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) and the
Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) - provide the mortar that binds the elements
The IFCS, created in Stockholm in April 1994, is a mechanism for cooperation among governments for promoting risk
assessment and environmentally sound management of chemicals. Representatives of governments meet with
intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to integrate and consolidate national and international
efforts to promote chemical safety. Its purpose is to provide policy guidance, develop strategies in a coordinated and
integrated way, foster understanding of the issues, and promote the requested policy support needed to discharge these
The IOMC, established in 1995, serves as a mechanism for coordinating efforts of international and intergovernmental
organizations - UNEP, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and
the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - in assessing and managing chemicals. Its scientific
and technical work is carried out through the existing structures of the six organizations, either individually or
UNCED designated six programme areas for increased efforts, and the major initiatives now under way fit within them.
UNCED set broad targets for assessing priority chemicals or groups of chemicals by the year 2000 - and for guidelines
for acceptable exposure to a greater number of toxic chemicals. In 1994, in accordance with Agenda 21, the IFCS
recommended that 200 additional chemicals should be targeted for evaluation by the end of 1997, and that, if
this target were met, another 300 should be evaluated by the year 2000.
The first target will probably be met through a variety of processes involving the OECD Screening Data Sets (SIDS)
programme, the International Programme for Chemical Safety (IPCS) and the FAO/WHO joint committees. But countries,
organizations and NGOs will have to increase their contributions to the process if the full, 500 chemical, target is
to be met. Preparing and finalizing agreed international assessments will have to be expedited through improved
coordination among the international agencies and between national/regional organizations and international agencies
and by NGOs.
Classification and labeling
Agenda 21 calls for a globally harmonized hazard classification and compatible labeling system - including material
safety data sheets and easily understandable symbols - to be available by the year 2000, if feasible. The key
international bodies responsible for implementing this programme - within the framework of the IOMC - are the ILO, the
OECD and the United Nations Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods. Other interested stakeholders,
including industry and countries with existing systems, are now taking a full part. Harmonizing classification
criteria and tests for each hazard category should be completed on time by the end of 1997 - and harmonizing of
chemical hazard communication by the year 2000. Work has also started in the IFCS in defining a mechanism, probably an
international standard, for national implementation of a globally harmonized system.
UNCED recognized the importance of governments having relevant information to enable chemicals to be managed soundly
and called for the exchange of information on chemical safety, use and emissions among all involved parties to be
intensified. It also recognized the advantages of global participation in the prior informed consent (PIC) procedure,
including possible mandatory applications through legally binding instruments, by the year 2000.
PIC helps participating countries learn more about potentially hazardous chemicals that may be shipped to them;
initiates a decision-making process on their future import in the importing country; facilitates disseminating this
decision to other countries; and encourages exporting countries to ensure that unwanted exports do not occur. It thus
promotes a shared responsibility between exporting and importing countries in protecting human health and the
environment from the harmful effects of certain hazardous chemicals, traded internationally. It has so far been
implemented voluntarily by participating governments and is administered jointly by FAO and UNEP.
In 1995 UNEP's Governing Council mandated it, together with FAO, to facilitate the negotiation of a global legally
binding instrument for implementing the PIC procedure. The negotiations have made rapid progress on the draft
convention text and UNEP's Governing Council at its 19th session confirmed its wish to have negotiations concluded
this year. Delegations have generally supported a legally binding instrument, closely following the existing voluntary
procedure, with the possibility of including additional elements of the UNEP London Guidelines and the FAO Code of
Conduct necessary for the effective functioning of the new convention. Attention has also been given to the process
for adding chemicals to the procedure and to dispute provision arrangements.
A coordinating group on information exchange, under the framework of the IOMC, has been promoting coordinated delivery
- in a much more complete way on CD-ROM, through Internet and via printed material - to governments and other
institutions who need information on toxic chemicals, evaluations of health and environmental risks and hazards, and
legal and other technical information. As a further contribution, Japan is establishing a pilot programme for a new
Global Information Network on Chemicals.
Risk reduction programmes
Reducing chemical risks is the ultimate goal of environmentally sound management. Options include chemical safety
legislation and enforcement, other basic national means for the management of chemicals, adequate labeling and
responsible care and stewardship by industry. These
are primarily national matters, but United Nations agencies and industry have particular responsibilities to
contribute to developing and implementing risk reduction measures. Some are aimed at strengthening countries' national
capabilities: UNEP, for example, has published Legislating Chemicals: An Overview and Code of Ethics on the
International Trade in Chemicals, which provides guidance
to governments and industry on legislation to enhance management
and helps countries develop national systems to strengthen the control of unregulated chemicals.
Other action has involved multilateral agreements: OECD environment ministers have adopted a Declaration on Lead,
committing their countries to advance national and cooperative efforts to reduce risks from exposure to the metal.
Others still are aimed at prevention: UNEP works closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and OECD,
within the framework of its awareness and preparedness for industrial accidents at the local level (APELL) programme,
to develop specific activities on preventing accidents in ports. FAO and UNIDO have promoted risk reduction in
pesticide development on a regional basis.
The issues associated with a community's right to know about releases to its environment have prompted the development
and introduction of Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs). Pilot projects show that these can help
developing and industrializing countries achieve environmental management objectives. National poisons control centres
with the full range of clinical, analytical and other facilities are now well established in some 20 countries: a
further 30 countries have well-established centres that lack some facility. Centres are being developed in a further
24 countries, and are being initiated in another nine.
One major initiative concerns persistent organic pollutants (POPs) - chemical substances that are persistent and
bioaccumulative and pose a risk to human health and the environment. They resist photolytic, chemical and biological
degradation. This persistence was once considered one of their best features, but they accumulate in the fatty tissue
of living organisms. They are semi-volatile, able to move long distances through the atmosphere and are transported in
low concentrations in water; so they are widely distributed in the environment, reaching areas where they have never
Many countries have become increasingly concerned about the risks associated with POPs and have taken or proposed
national action to protect human health and the environment (e.g. through the United Nations/Economic Commission for
Europe Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), the North American Commission for Environmental
Cooperation, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and the Barcelona Resolution on the Environment and
Sustainable Development in the Mediterranean Basin).
In May 1995 the UNEP Governing Council session took two decisions in this area: Decision 18/32, specifically
addressing POPs at the global level, and Decision 18/31, concerning protection of the marine environment. Decision
18/32 directly addresses the need for international action to reduce or eliminate releases and emissions of POPs. It
put in place a process to determine, for a list of 12 POPs - including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - the adequacy
of existing information and the existence and suitability of alternatives - and called on the IFCS to recommend
international action for consideration at the 19th session of the UNEP Governing Council in 1997. This was done: the
report to the Governing Council called for immediate action, including the negotiation of a global legally binding
instrument. The Governing Council endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of the IFCS report, and requested UNEP
to initiate the negotiation process by early 1998, with a view to the conclusion of a legally binding instrument by
Much has already been done during the assessment process, and a considerable body of work has also arisen from the
development of a Protocol on POPs under LRTAP. But the complexity of the issue, the stakeholders involved, and
differing economic and environmental circumstances in the global community mean that much is left to be done in the
negotiations. Governments have made it clear that the easy solution of merely translating a regional agreement into a
global instrument is not available.
The work undertaken to implement Decision 18/32 was complemented by the Declaration of the Intergovernmental
Conference to Adopt the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based
Activities in November 1995, when governments agreed to act to develop a global, legally binding instrument for
reducing and/or eliminating emissions, discharges and, where appropriate, the elimination of the manufacture and use
of the POPs, including PCBs, identified in the Decision.
National capabilities and capacities
Sound national management of chemicals requires, among other things, legislation and provisions for implementation and
enforcement. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research, in cooperation with international organizations,
including UNEP, FAO, ILO, UNIDO, OECD and WHO, developed and implemented several training and capacity-building
programmes that address various aspects of chemicals management. The PIC procedure, even in its current voluntary
mode, provides a valuable tool.
Illegal international traffic
UNCED called for measures to reinforce national capacities to detect and halt any illegal attempt to introduce toxic
and dangerous products into the territory of any state, in contravention of national legislation and relevant
international legal instruments. It also called for assistance to all countries, particularly developing ones, in
obtaining all appropriate information concerning illegal traffic. International efforts to assist countries to develop
and enforce legislation to control the illegal movement of toxic chemicals are urgently needed. Exchanging information
and the move to make the PIC procedure global and legally binding will help.
The World Trade Organization Marrakech Decision on Trade and the Environment established the Committee on Trade and
Environment, with a mandate particularly to examine the issue of domestically prohibited goods (DPGs), products whose
sale and use are restricted at home on the grounds that they present a danger to human health and the environment but
may yet be exported to other countries. It has examined the issue several times: countries noted that discipline on
trade in DPGs should be non-discriminating, should restrict trade as little as possible and should not lead to
extra-territorial application of national measures.
The IFCS and IOMC have together established a framework to coordinate and harmonize the efforts of governments, NGOs,
and intergovernmental organizations in meeting the objectives of Chapter 19 of Agenda 21. Though there have certainly
been some unfulfilled expectations in addressing the global chemicals agenda, they have demonstrated that, by acting
in close cooperation, bodies engaged in chemical safety can be more productive and attain higher quality output, for
Governments are negotiating the moving of the PIC procedure from a voluntary basis to a legally binding one and will
soon also be engaged in negotiations on POPs. Governments can be expected to face the issue of how trade matters will
be handled, and the forum best suited to handling them, in both negotiations.
The relationship of the PIC instrument to others dealing with chemicals - either existing or mooted - is already on
the table. The Governing Council has requested a report on the scope for enhanced coherence and efficiency among
international activities related to chemicals for consideration at its 20th session.
Concern is emerging that certain toxic chemicals may elicit adverse effects even at low environmental levels. Some,
such as endocrine disrupters and immunotoxic chemicals, are coming under considerably more scientific and public
scrutiny, and may become priorities for further research, assessment or action.
Notwithstanding the roles of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, governments determine the agenda and priorities
- and provide the resources needed to drive the process. Much progress has been made towards the environmentally sound
management of toxic chemicals, but more financial and human resources are needed at both international and national
levels to implement Chapter 19 more effectively.
Of course, many countries and international organizations are experiencing severe budgetary restraints. One positive
move is the Global Environment Facility's adoption in 1995 of an operational strategy which will, for the first time,
facilitate funding to address chemical contaminants in relation to protecting international waters. It offers the
possibility of a significant and sustainable resource base to address many toxic chemicals issues at the global,
regional and national level.
But increased technical and scientific input and participation from all countries and NGOs will be needed for the
international initiatives in the assessment process, including exchanging information, and distributing hazard and
risk information. Without this, the chemical agenda runs the risk of being hijacked by those countries that can afford
to fund the aspects in which they are particularly interested - unilaterally distorting what is essentially a global
John Whitelaw, formerly Deputy Executive Director of Australia's Environment Protection Agency, is Special Advisor
to the Executive Director, UNEP.