By Sharon Atieno

Countries will not meet the global goal to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020, reveals a United Nations (UN) report released at the fourth UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA 4) in Nairobi.

A panel during the launch of the Global Chemicals Outlook II

Between 2000 and 2017, the global chemical industry’s production capacity-excluding pharmaceuticals-almost doubled from 1.2 to 2.3 billion tones, findings from the Global Chemicals Outlook II project that by 2030, the figure will double.

Despite commitments to maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts of this industry, hazardous chemicals continue to be released to the environment in large quantities. Chemical pollutants continue to be detected in air, water, soil and biota in all regions. Human beings are also not spared as microplastics and other harmful chemicals have been found in humans.

The 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on pollution and health identified chemical pollution as a significant and “almost certainly underestimated” contributor to the global burden of disease whereas the World Health organization (WHO) in 2018 estimated the disease burden due to chemicals in the environment at around 1.6 million lives and around 45 million disability-adjusted life years in 2016.

The production and use of some hazardous chemicals addressed by international action have been phased out- as in the case of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or significantly reduced-as in the case of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). However, ensuring environmentally sound waste management of these chemicals still poses significant challenges.

Moreover, production and use of other chemicals causing concern remain stable or are increasing. The market for most heavy metals such as lead and mercury has remained stable while production of plastics, fertilizers and pesticides, pharmaceuticals and others is increasing in many regions.

The second Global Chemicals Outlook report finds that while international treaties and voluntary instruments have reduced the risks of some chemicals and wastes, progress has been uneven and implementation gaps remain. For example, as of 2018, more than 120 countries had not implemented the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.

Trends data suggest that the projected doubling of the global chemicals market between 2017 and 2030 will increase global chemical releases, exposures, concentrations and adverse health and environmental impacts unless the sound management of chemicals is achieved globally. Therefore, there is need for urgent action to reduce further damage to human health and the environment.

“To address gaps, a global framework for the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020 needs to be developed that is aspirational, comprehensive, and creates incentives to foster commitment and engagement by all relevant actors in the value chain,” states the UN report.

The report further notes that collaborative action by stakeholders in all countries will be required to accelerate progress in order to achieve sound management and minimize impacts in the context of the 2030 Agenda.

“Solutions do exist, as the report shows.” said Joyce Msuya, acting Executive Director of UN Environment, “Sustainable supply chain management, innovations in green and sustainable chemistry, and adopting common approaches to chemicals management can reduce the risks to human health, ecosystems and economies.”

The Global Chemicals Outlook II identifies ten action areas which will be relevant in developing and implementing an international approach for chemicals and waste management beyond 2020. These include: developing effective management systems, using life cycle approaches, bringing knowledge to decision makers, mobilizing resources, strengthening corporate governance, enhancing global commitment, assessing and communicating hazards, educating and innovating, assessing and managing risks as well as fostering transparency.