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October 21, 2021

Policy can advance chemical safety and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

With the industrial revolution, mankind embarked on a path that has been both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because our lives have become easier, more pleasant and more mobile in many respects. It’s a curse, because we are disregarding planetary boundaries with our hunger for growth; blessed developments are now being reversed. 

This same paradox can also be found with the topic of chemicals. Currently, there are over 40,000 industrial chemicals in commerce worldwide, and hundreds of new chemicals enter the market every year. 

Chemicals help to improve the quality of life in many areas, and they are essential in order to meet the social and economic needs and goals of all nations. Still, at the same time, many of them have undesirable and harmful effects on human health and the environment, are burdening health and education sectors and are impacting economic productivity. 

In the European Union, for instance, costs resulting from  neuro-behavioural deficits caused by exposure to certain chemicals is estimated to be more than USD 170 BILLION per year.  

Particularly problematic are chemicals that cause hazards to our environment - in water bodies, soil or air, in the food chain or drinking water - and which accumulate in our bodies. Hazardous chemicals, including phthalates, heavy metals, such as lead, pesticides, and environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants, can cause irreversible harm to the health of humans, fauna, flora and ecosystems. Children can be particularly affected, and babies can be born with harmful chemicals in their bodies.

Over the last decades, it became more and more obvious that sound management of chemicals across the lifecycle (production, use and disposal) requires global policy frameworks, commitment and co-operations. This has already been called for at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, which resulted in the first international Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM1) in Dubai in 2006, at which governments adopted The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)- a global policy framework to foster the sound management of chemicals. 

The Dubai Declaration emphasises the importance of sound management to achieve Sustainable Development and reduce poverty. The holistic protection of human health from hazardous environmental effects is a major focus of sustainable development. Hardly any sustainability goal for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda can be achieved without responsible chemicals and waste management.

Sustainability requires frameworks and regulations

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the international community in 2015 is a plan of action for the prosperity of people and the planet, and stresses the need for transformative actions to “shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.” 

It focuses on eradicating (extreme) poverty and hunger, realising the human rights of all and achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. It also determines the importance of protecting the planet from degradation by promoting sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change

All SDGs are interlinked, integrated and indivisible, and are addressing the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. 

Nearly all SDGs and their targets call for actions related to chemical safety and hazardous chemicals, but particularly prominent is Sustainable Development Goal 12, which ensures sustainable consumption and production patterns. Target 12.4 works towards achieving the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

Below is are examples of SDG references to the treatment of hazardous chemicals: 

Sustainable Development Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Target 2.4: ensure “sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices” and Target 2.5: “maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants…”

Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Targets 3.9: “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.”

Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all which can be transferred to people exposed to toxic substances.

Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Risk reduction measures with regard to toxic chemicals are key to address the adverse health effects of chemicals on the health of children and pregnant women and the need to raise awareness.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Target 6.3 calls for improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.

Good policies crucial for sound management of chemicals and waste 

The Future Policy Award 2021 contributed to highlighting how countries have set out in recent years to achieve the SDGs and to set comprehensive policies to protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals. 55 policies from 36 countries across the globe were nominated and screened. 

Establishing a ‘Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals’ (GHS) regulations and making them legally binding is an essential fundament of the sound management of chemicals and waste, including the control and supervision of production, import, sale, use,and end-of-life management. 

Kyrgyzstan’s Resolution No. 43 on Approval of the Chemical Hazard Classification System and Hazard Information Requirements (2015) is the first in Central Asia and was awarded Gold for its comprehensive approach and successful implementation of GHS regulations.

Hazardous chemicals can be successfully phased-out through the procurement system, show the Phase-Out Lists for Chemicals Hazardous to the Environment and Human Health (2012–2016, revised for 2017–2021) of the Region Stockholm. The Gold awarded phase-out lists identify toxic chemicals with the goal to phase out these substances step by step in the procurement system, as a persuasive precedent for all other users, retailers and consumers. 

The lists comprise chemicals in chemical products as well as in products such as consumables and articles used in laboratories, healthcare, dentistry, IT, cleaning or textiles.

Exposure to lead can cause 143,000 cases of death, and 600,000 cases of intellectual disabilities in children every year, states the Future Policy Award’s report. Since many low and middle-income countries impose either none or insufficient limits on lead paint, it is estimated that children in these areas are most severely affected. 

The internationally agreed upon figure is a total lead concentration limit of 90 parts per million (ppm). With the Chemical Control Order (CCO) for Lead and Lead Compounds, which won the Special Award, the Philippines were the first Southeast Asian country to successfully implement legislation towards lead-safe paint. 

What also makes this policy outstanding is the extensive cooperative efforts of various stakeholders, including the industry itself, during the policy formulation and implementation. The policy has also inspired this element of the UNEP’s Model Law and Guidance for Regulating Lead.

More efforts and regulations are needed in order to realise the 2030 Agenda and manufacture toxic-free products for the sake of people and the environment. Still, it is encouraging to see that many countries, especially middle and low-income countries, have already embarked on this path with international support and are working towards effective regulations of hazardous chemicals. 

These policies can serve as an example for other countries and regions so that we can strengthen global and sustainable chemicals management and thus contribute strongly to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Anna-Lara Stehn is a Media and Communication Manager at the World Future Council. 

Image by: World Future Council