|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on UN Environment Programme’s ‘Global Chemicals Outlook’ Report
Investing in the sound management of chemicals could lead to a savings of billions of dollars and significantly reduced human health risks, said a panel of experts at a Headquarters press conference today, as they gathered to launch a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the matter.
“Chemical production is growing worldwide, but the growth is most rapid in developing countries and countries with economies in transition,” said Rachel Massey, lead author of Global Chemicals Outlook, and a policy analyst at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. She said that the report traces trends related to chemical use, disposal and human exposure, citing, in that respect, the “skyrocketing” use of the chemical benzene in Asia. The chemical — whose use had increased an estimated 800 per cent in China in recent years — was linked to leukaemia and other cancers, she said.
Joining Ms. Massey today were Munyaradzi Chenje, Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) office in New York, and Valerie Denney, Communications Director of the International POPs Elimination Network. They also explored some of the report’s findings, echoing Ms. Massey’s comments on the sections on chemical use and disposal, health impacts, economic impacts and policy measures to be taken.
For example, continued Ms. Massey, the report estimates the global health burden associated with exposure to chemicals, noting that, according to the World Health Organization, over 8 per cent of deaths and 6 per cent of “disability life years lost” were associated with chemicals in 2004. Foetuses and children were most affected by such exposure. Migrant workers and those working in the informal sector and child labourers, in particular, were at especially high risk. Chemical exposure could result in a range of health outcomes, including damage to organs and body systems, health defects and chronic disorders.
One section of the report considers the way forward, she said, describing the “enormous magnitude of benefits” that could result from sound chemical management. For example, it was estimated that up to $90 billion could be saved in the accumulated cost of injury and illness linked to pesticides in small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
“The Global Chemicals Outlook is a wake-up call” for industry and policy makers, said Ms. Denney, whose organization also collaborated on the report. “The global community is not moving forward towards the goal of sound chemical management,” she stressed, adding: “we have an opportunity to turn this situation around, but it will require urgent action by all parties”.
Among those, she said, Governments should commit to the sound management of chemicals, and more resources should be dedicated to chemical safety. Currently, the world was witnessing an “imbalanced system” in which chemicals brought the most benefit to transnational companies in the developed world and developing countries bore the greatest burden in terms of exposure and health risks. A mechanism was needed, therefore, to ensure that chemical companies paid the “true cost” of chemical management. “Preventing harm is cheaper than fixing it,” she emphasized, adding that “doing nothing is the most expensive option”.
Mr. Chenje agreed that the report is the first comprehensive assessment of its kind, and that it made strides in alerting the international community to the risks associated with unsafe chemical management and disposal. Moreover, it came on the heels of renewed commitments made by countries at the recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — known as Rio+20 — to prevent the illegal dumping of toxic wastes, develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in products, and increase the recycling of wastes, among other measures.
The report gathered facts and evidence, he added, and made a strong case for sound chemical management. It also included plans to motivate businesses in light of the potential economic opportunities of that process.
Asked whether the report would be presented to the chemical industry, Ms. Massey replied that the report had, in fact, been drafted with the participation of multiple stakeholders, including industry trade associations. In a follow-up question, another correspondent wondered whether the report, therefore, relied on data from chemical companies themselves. Ms. Massey responded that data had been provided from independent sources, not from chemical companies.
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