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A global response to a global challenge
Ensuring the safety of all the chemicals that are available on the market is a challenge that countries cannot deal with alone. A harmonised approach on chemicals policy and risk assessment can avoid the duplication of work and increase cost effectiveness. Bob Diderich, Head of Division of the Environment Directorate in the OECD, spoke with ECHA Newsletter about the challenges of global chemicals management.
"Our work on chemicals is based on the problem that all countries are facing; they have 100 000 chemicals on their market and there is no way that countries can address the safety of all these on their own. Therefore, the role of the OECD is to look for efficiencies in addressing the risks of chemicals to human health and the environment, and to help countries to share the burden," Mr Diderich says.
Through the OECD, countries have learned to speak the same language when it comes to chemicals management. Questions related to, for example, hazard and risk assessment, or the methodologies that can be used in this work, should be answered the same way, no matter who is asked.
| Bob Diderich. |
Image: Bob Diderich.
Mutual acceptance of data
The cornerstone of the OECD activities is the system of mutual acceptance of data, which means that test results generated using OECD test guidelines and OECD principles of good laboratory practices are accepted for assessment in any OECD country, or any other country that has joined the system. "That alone generates 150 million euros of savings for countries every year," Mr Diderich highlights and continues, "the idea is that whatever is done in one country can be reused in another country, to avoid duplication and to make it as cost-effective as possible".
The OECD test guidelines are a collection of test methods that have been agreed on internationally. They can be used by governments and industry to determine the safety of chemicals. The work on the test guidelines started in 1981 and today there are more than 150 available. However, according to Mr Diderich, it is challenging work and will always need to catch up with the science. "The work in developing the test guidelines will never stop. There will always be new scientific challenges and new effects that countries want to test," Mr Diderich points out.
Inspired by the EU
Today, many countries are looking at what is being done in the EU and considering how to move from assessing 10-20 chemicals per year to a system where 1 000 chemicals are being assessed every year. This requires big changes because resources must be planned in a new way and sometimes the existing infrastructure struggles to keep up with the pace. "We need alternative and integrative methods that allow us to assess chemicals faster and cheaper. We at the OECD are at the forefront in developing the methods that allow this. In practice, it means that we need to find out how to assess more chemicals with fewer resources," Mr Diderich explains.
According to Mr Diderich, endocrine disruptors are still one of the big challenges that need to be looked into. The OECD has already developed tools for a number of modes of action and the development work continues. He also mentions nanomaterials as a topic that is very high on everybody's agenda. "After seven years of work, we have now come to the conclusion that risk assessment tools developed for traditional chemicals can also be applied to nanomaterials but we need to adapt quite a number of them. It will, however, take another 10 years for us to do this," he adds.
Substitution is the third hot topic that Mr Diderich raises. "We are starting to look into how we can develop and promote tools that industry and governments can use to assess alternatives for chemicals that they want to substitute. It is important that they can clearly determine if the substitute has a lower level of risk and make sure that it does not have different issues that can cause problems later," he explains.
Finally, Mr Diderich reminds that it is challenging for the OECD to remain relevant, especially if all chemical production were to move to non-OECD countries. "We need to work with our partner countries, focusing particularly on the big emerging economies, to promote the same good practice and standards that we are using in the OECD countries," he emphasises. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, India, Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia have already joined the system of mutual acceptance of data. "We are now focusing our efforts to get China on board. China is making tremendous progress in improving their chemicals safety framework, so I think things could happen very quickly," Mr Diderich summarises.
Did you know?
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
6-8 March and
Committee for Socio-Economic
Management Board meeting:
23-27 March (tentative)
Member State Committee:
20-24 April (tentative)