UN calls for coordinated action for the management of chemicals

Posted on 13 Sep 2012 by Tim Brown

According to a new UN report, coordinated action by governments and industry is urgently needed to reduce the growing risks to human health, the environment, and the economy posed by the poor management of chemicals.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Chemicals Outlook, released this month, highlights the major economic burden caused by chemical hazards, particularly in developing countries.

The report reveals that the estimated costs of poisonings from pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa now exceeds the total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS. Between 2005 and 2020, the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa could reach USD $90 billion.

Of the estimated 140,000+ chemicals on the market today, only a fraction has been thoroughly evaluated to determine their effects on human health and the environment.

Among primarily OECD countries, including the UK, the data indicates that inorganic chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid and organic chemicals such as styrene, formaldehyde, toluene and acetaldehyde are routinely among the air pollutants released in the highest quantities.

Pollutants commonly discharged in large quantities in primarily OECD countries to surface waters include inorganic chemicals such as nitric acid/nitrate compounds, ammonia and manganese and organic chemicals such as methanol, ethylene glycol, phenol, toluene, and formaldehyde.

Estimates suggest that up to 75 per cent of the e-waste generated in Europe and approximately 80 per cent of the e-waste generated in the United States goes unaccounted for.

Poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to over 1 million deaths annually and 14 million Disability Adjusted Life Years. The scope of unintended industrial accidents involving chemicals continues to grow rapidly.

Poor management of volatile organic compounds is responsible for global economic losses estimated at USD $236.3 billion. Exposure to mercury results in health and environmental damage estimated at USD $22 billion.

The damage caused by acute water pollution to commercial fisheries in China has been estimated at USD $634 million during the period of one year. In the USA, poorly managed pesticides have resulted in USD $1.4 billion in crop losses, and USD $2.2 billion in bird losses.  The Buncefield oil storage depot incident in the UK resulted in one of the biggest blazes in peace-time Europe, with losses of over £1 billion in litigation and medical costs alone.

Sound chemicals management can reduce these financial and health burdens, while improving livelihoods, supporting ecosystems, reducing pollution and developing green technology, says the study.

“Communities worldwide – particularly those in emerging and developing countries – are increasingly dependent on chemical products, from fertilizers and petrochemicals to electronics and plastics, for economic development and improving livelihoods,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner.
“But the gains that chemicals can provide must not come at the expense of human health and the environment. Pollution and disease related to the unsustainable use, production and disposal of chemicals can, in fact, hinder progress towards key development targets by affecting water supplies, food security, well-being or worker productivity.

The full UNEP Synthesis Report for Decision-Makers – Global Chemical Outlook: Towards Sound management of Chemicals is available at: www.unep.org/hazardoussubstances/