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This article is also featured in Vol.1, No. 5 of 


By John Whitelaw, Special Advisor to the Executive Director 
United Nations Environment Programme

Chemicals are everywhere in our lives. And in our environment. It seems at times that the processes for dealing with chemicals are everywhere too. A glance at the programme of international meetings reveals that hardly a month passes without some gathering to address a chemicals issue. What is it about chemicals that warrant such attention? Are these meetings necessary? Are they each addressing a unique issue, or are they either duplicating or conflicting with one another?

A substantial use of chemicals is essential to meet the social and economic goals of the world community. Industry has responded to society's needs and given it a vast array of chemical products. Many have been heralded as "ideal" on their release, and some have been found later to be less than ideal. The chemicals issue provides all the elements and tensions for a good case study in sustainable development-essential for economic development but with the risk of environmental danger. It is not surprising then to find within Agenda 21, the Program of Action for Sustainable Development that came from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), a chapter devoted to environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals.

Today's best practices demonstrate that chemicals can be used widely in a cost-effective manner with a high degree of safety and in a manner protective of the environment. It should be possible for chemicals to be manufactured, imported, exported, processed, transported, distributed in commerce, used and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner and in ways that protect human health and the environment. But potential for human exposure and pollution of the environment arises at all stages in the life-cycle, from chemicals synthesis through ultimate disposal. For some chemicals, governments have already decided that the risks are too great. For others, a great deal still remains to be done to ensure environmentally sound management of chemicals. Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 provides the framework for doing this.

Within the overarching principles of the Rio Declaration, governments agreed on guidelines and policies for the international chemicals programme. In Chapter 19, UNCED designated six programme areas for increased national and international efforts. The major initiatives currently underway fit within these areas. Much of the work, though of major importance and underpinning other more visible initiatives, is routine and goes largely unnoticed. In 1994, in response to UNCED, governments formed the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) to facilitate cooperation between governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.


UNCED called for strengthening of the international risk assessment effort and set broad targets for priority chemicals or groups of chemicals, including major pollutants and contaminants of global significance, to be assessed by the year 2000 using current selection and assessment criteria. It also called for guidelines for acceptable exposure to a greater number of toxic chemicals, based on peer review and scientific consensus distinguishing between health or environment-based exposure limits and those relating to socio-economic factors. In 1994, in accordance with Agenda 21, the IFCS recommended that 200 additional chemicals should be targeted for evaluation by 1997, and if this target was met, that another 300 chemicals should be evaluated by the year 2000.

Through a variety of processes involving the OECD Screening Data Sets (SIDS) program, the International Program for Chemical Safety (IPCS) and the FAO/WHO joint committees, the target of 200 chemicals set for 1997 will likely be met. However, to achieve the target of 500 chemicals, countries, organizations and NGOs will have to increase their contribution to this process. Meeting these objectives will also require expedited preparation and finalization of agreed international assessments through improved coordination of relevant programmes both among the international agencies and between national/regional organizations and international agencies and by NGOs.


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 if feasible by the year 2000. Within the framework of the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), the ILO, OECD and the UN Committee of Experts on Transport of Dangerous Goods (UNCETDG) are the key international bodies responsible for implementing this programme area. Other interested stakeholders, including industry and countries with existing systems, are now taking full part in this project. 

Harmonization of classification criteria and tests for each hazard category should be completed on time by the end of 1997. Work on harmonization of chemical hazard communication (labeling and chemical safety data sheets) should be completed by the year 2000. Work has also started in defining a mechanism, most probably in the form of an international standard, for implementing a globally harmonized system at the national level.


UNCED recognized the importance to governments of having relevant information to enable their sound management of chemicals. Intensified exchange of information on chemical safety, use and emissions among all involved parties was called for. Also recognizing the advantages in global participation by the year 2000 in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure including possible mandatory applications through legally binding instruments.

PIC is a procedure that: helps participating countries learn more about the characteristics of potentially hazardous chemicals that may be shipped to them; initiates a decision-making process on future import of these chemicals in the importing country; facilitates dissemination of this decision to other countries; and, encourages exporting countries to take actions to ensure that unwanted exports do not occur. The procedure 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 that are being traded internationally. The PIC procedure has so far been implemented on a voluntary basis by participating governments and is administered jointly by the FAO and UNEP.

UNEP's Governing Council at its 1995 meeting mandated UNEP, together with the FAO, to facilitate the negotiation of a global legally binding instrument for the implementation of the PIC procedure. The negotiations have made rapid progress in the two negotiating sessions held to date. There have been proposals that the scope of the instrument should allow some flexibility, in order to include the possibility of considering measures beyond the existing PIC procedure, but the majority of delegations have supported a legally binding instrument that follows closely the existing, voluntary PIC procedure. Attention has also been given to the process for adding chemicals to the PIC procedure and to the dispute provision arrangements. The negotiations have made considerable progress on the draft convention text. It is expected that the negotiations will be concluded in 1997.

Under the framework of the IOMC, a coordinating group on information exchange has been promoting the coordinated delivery to governments and other institutions who need information on toxic chemicals, evaluations of health and environmental risks and hazards as well as legal and other technical information. Such coordination has helped promote delivery of information on CD-ROM, through Internet and via printed material in a much more coordinated and complete way. As a further contribution to improved access to information on chemicals, Japan is establishing a pilot programme of a new Global Information Network on Chemicals.


The reduction of chemical risks is the ultimate goal of the environmentally sound management of chemicals. Risk reduction options include fundamental arrangements such as chemical safety legislation and enforcement, as well as other basic national means for the management of chemicals, adequate labeling and responsible care and stewardship by industry. The chemical risk reduction activities are primarily national matters. However, UN agencies and industry have a particular responsibility to contribute to the development and implementation of risk reduction measures. Some of these measures are aimed at strengthening the national capabilities of countries. For example, UNEP has published "Legislating Chemicals: An Overview" and "Code of Ethics on the International Trade in Chemicals." These two documents provide guidance on legislation of chemicals to governments and industry to enhance chemical management and help countries develop national systems to strengthen control of unregulated chemicals.

Other actions have involved multilateral agreements among countries. Environment Ministers of the OECD have adopted a Declaration on Lead, which commits their countries to advance national and cooperative efforts to reduce risks from exposure to lead. Other actions are aimed at prevention. Within the framework of its APELL programme, UNEP works closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and OECD to develop specific activities on the prevention of accidents in ports. FAO and UNIDO have been active in promoting 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 PRTR can also be of value for developing/industrializing countries in achieving environmental management objectives. National poisons control centers with the full range of clinical, analytical and other facilities are now well-established in some 20 countries and a further 30 countries have well-established centers that lack some facility. Centers are being developed in a further 24 countries, and are being initiated in nine other countries.

One of the major chemicals initiatives is in the area of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs are chemical substances that are persistent, bio-accumulative and pose a risk to human health and the environment. The concern with POPs arises because these chemicals resist photolytic, chemical and biological degradation. Their persistence was often considered one of their best features. However, they also have low water and high lipid solubility, resulting in bio-accumulation in fatty tissue of living organisms. They are semi-volatile and able to move long distances through the atmosphere and are transported in low concentrations by the movement of fresh and marine waters, resulting in wide spread distribution in the environment, including in areas where they have never been used. 

Over the past several years, many countries have become increasingly concerned about the risks associated with POPs and have taken or proposed actions at the national level to protect human health and the environment (e.g. through the UN ECE 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 Mediterranean Basin).

At the UNEP Governing Council meeting in May 1995, two decisions were taken with regard to global action on POPs; namely Decision 18/32, which specifically addresses POPS at the global level, and Decision 18/31, which concerns protection of the marine environment. Decision 18/32 addresses directly the need for international actions to reduce or eliminate releases and emissions of POPs. It put in place a process to determine, for a list of 12 POPs including PCBs, the adequacy of existing information, the existence and suitability of alternatives to the 12 POPs, and called on the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) to recommend international action for consideration at the 19th Meeting of the UNEP Governing Council in 1997. The process has been completed, and the report to the Governing Council calls for immediate action, including the negotiation of a global legally binding instrument.

Much work has already been done during the assessment process. Further, there is a considerable body of work arising from the development of a Protocol on POPs under LRTAP. But the complexity of the POPs issue, the stakeholders involved in it and the differing economic and environmental circumstances of 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. But given the strong support from governments, NGOs and IGOs in responding to the UNEP GC decision, and given also the strength of the recommendation that there is a need for a legally binding instrument, it would seem likely that negotiations will start in 1997 subject to the availability of adequate funding to support the process.

The work undertaken to implement Decision 18/32 was complemented by the November 1995 Declaration of the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, in which governments agreed to act to develop a global, legally binding instrument for the reduction and/or elimination of emissions, discharges and, where appropriate, the elimination of the manufacture and use of the POPs, including PCBs, identified in decision 18/32.


Sound management of chemicals at the national level requires, inter alia, legislation and provisions for implementation and enforcement. UNITAR, 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 in this respect. 


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 instrument; and assistance to all countries, particularly developing countries, in obtaining all appropriate information concerning illegal traffic in toxic and dangerous products.

There is an urgent need to increase international efforts to assist countries in the development and enforcement of legislation to control the illegal movement of toxic chemicals. Information exchange and the move to make the PIC procedure global in scope and legally binding will assist. 

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Marrakech Decision on Trade and the Environment established the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), with a mandate to examine in particular the issue of domestically prohibited goods (DPGs), which concern the treatment of products whose sale and use are restricted in the domestic market on the grounds that they present a danger to human health and the environment but nevertheless may be exported to other countries. The CTE has examined several times the issue of DPGs. Countries noted that discipline on trade in DPGs should be non-discriminating, least trade-restrictive and should not lead to extra-territorial application of national measures.


While Agenda 21 provides the framework upon which the international chemicals agenda is built, two recently established entities provide the mortar that binds the various elements. The Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) was created in Stockholm in April 1994, and is a mechanism for cooperation among governments for the promotion of chemical risk assessment and environmentally sound management of chemicals. It is a non-institutional arrangement whereby representatives of governments meet together with intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations with the aim of integrating and consolidating national and international efforts to promote chemical safety. The purpose of the Forum is to provide policy guidance, develop strategies in a coordinated and integrated manner, foster understanding of the issues, and promote the requested policy support needed to discharge these functions. 

The Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) was established in 1995 to serve as a mechanism for coordinating efforts of international and inter-governmental organizations (UNEP, ILO, FAO, WHO, UNIDO and OECD) in the assessment and management of chemicals. Scientific and technical work of the IOMC is carried out through the existing structures of the six organizations, either individually or jointly. Together, these two mechanisms have established a framework to coordinate and harmonize the efforts of governments, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations in meeting the objectives of Chapter 19. Although there have certainly been some unfulfilled expectations in addressing the global chemicals agenda, these two mechanisms have demonstrated that, by acting in close cooperation, bodies engaged in chemical safety can be more productive and attain higher quality output, for fewer resources.

Governments are currently negotiating the moving of the Prior Informed Consent procedure from a voluntary basis to a legally binding one. If the UNEP Governing Council accepts the recommendations before it at its 1997 meeting, governments will also be engaged in negotiations on POPs. 

The importance of chemicals in international trade has already been evident in the negotiations to date and could be expected to continue. An issue that governments could be expected to face in both negotiations is the manner in which trade matters will be handled, and the forum best suited to handling them.

A further issue already on the table is the relationship of the PIC instrument to other instruments dealing with chemicals-either existing or mooted. There is already discussion of the concept of a Framework Convention or other overarching instrument to provide a formal interrelationship and, potentially, to enable efficiencies in managing the different issues. Governments have indicated that it is yet too early move on such a proposal, and at this stage have re-affirmed their commitments to finalizing the PIC agreement. 

An emerging issue arises from concern that certain toxic chemicals may elicit their adverse effects at low environmental levels. Some of these chemicals, 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, at the end of the day it is governments that 

determine the agenda, the priorities and governments that provide the resources necessary to drive the process. While much progress has been made towards the environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals, additional financial and human resources are needed at both international and national levels to more effectively implement Chapter 19. 

It is recognized that many countries and international organizations are experiencing severe budgetary restraints. Certainly the adoption in 1995 by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) of an operational strategy which, for the first time, will facilitate funding to address chemical contaminants in relation to protection of international waters is a positive move. This initiative now offers the possibility of a significant and sustainable resource base to address many toxic chemicals issues at the global, regional and national level.

However, increased technical and scientific input and participation from all countries and NGOs will be needed for the international initiatives in the assessment process, including information exchange, and distribution of hazard and risk information. Without that, 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, with resulting unilateral distortion of what is a essentially a global issue.


John Whitelaw was Deputy Executive Director of Australia's Environment Protection Agency prior to February 1996, when he took up his current position with UNEP. He can be reached by e-mail at 




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