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Stepping up to a challenge: increasing chemicals safety in developing countries
The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) aims to ensure the sound management of chemicals worldwide so that, by 2020, chemicals will be produced and used in ways that minimise adverse impacts on the environment and human health. We spoke to Mr Jacob Duer, Chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch of UN Environment, to ask how SAICM’s ambitions can be achieved and what challenges developing countries face when setting up chemicals management systems.
Setting broad objectives
SAICM comes to an end in 2020. The approach has set very ambitious goals for chemicals management and although these may not be fully met, many of them will be to an extent. These include:
- reducing risk;
- spreading knowledge and information on chemicals safety;
- creating good governance;
- building capacity and technical cooperation; and
- preventing illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous goods.
“These broad goals have required sustained efforts from many of the strategic approach's stakeholders. I believe there are many lessons to be learnt from how SAICM has implemented its objectives and formulated indicators to monitor progress. Of course, developing safer chemicals management systems is an ongoing process and stakeholders will define a new policy approach from 2020 onwards that will carry on from the work already done under SAICM,” Mr Duer tells.
Having the foresight to identify emerging policy issues
SAICM has proven successful in identifying future policy issues. So far, resolutions have been adopted for eight emerging policy issues, including nanomaterials, lead in paint, chemicals in products and pharmaceutical pollutants, to mention a few.
“By recognising the emerging issues, the strategic approach has been able to set specific targets. One such issue, where our chances of making legislative change are probably highest, is tackling lead in paint,” Mr Duer says.
Lead is still used in paint sold in developing countries, even though safer alternatives have been available for decades. Lead exposure has been estimated to contribute to 600 000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year.
“Consumers in developing countries might not even know that lead in paint is hazardous, so raising their awareness is crucial,” Mr Duer highlights.
To address this, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have established the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, which aims to safeguard the health of children and to minimise occupational exposures to lead-based paints.
Addressing hazardous substances is a policy issue
A key concern for SAICM has been how to set up legislation in developing countries that may not have governmental institutional infrastructures in place.
In addition, chemicals safety is secondary to economic growth in many countries and its link to environmental burden is not fully understood or recognised. Joint efforts on a global level have developed tools to help developing countries gain a better understanding of the costs of inaction and how to build necessary governmental structures to support the development and implementation of legal frameworks.
However, where chemicals safety is not the main priority, it still remains a challenge. The situation is complex and often coupled with efforts to reduce poverty and satisfy the basic needs of citizens.
“It is a challenge to get chemicals safety on the political agenda, but more than that, in countries where the levels of education and literacy can be low, raising awareness on how to use chemicals safely can be an uphill struggle. In these settings, with many other matters to address, thinking of sound chemicals management can sound like a luxury, although the reality is that sound management of chemicals is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals under the 2030 development agenda,” Mr Duer tells.
But bringing discussions on the regulatory aspects of chemicals management out into the open remains important. “When you address hazardous substances in products, you also address poverty issues.
Sound chemicals management promotes economic and social development. It brings benefits to society and aims to ensure that these benefits do not cause an extremely high cost,” he adds.
Gender also has to be considered
It is also critical to consider gender roles when formulating approaches toward safer chemicals management. For example, in predominantly agricultural communities, women may be the main users of chemical products, both at home and at work. They are also more susceptible to negative health effects caused by exposure to harmful chemicals, especially during pregnancy.
“In developing countries, it is often women who toil in the fields, spraying pesticides, sometimes even while carrying their babies on their backs,” Mr Duer describes.
“At home, they might work in small-scale mining, using mercury to extract gold from its ore, and later use the same utensils to cook food for their families. This is why educating women is one way to improve safety across the whole of the society they live in,” he adds.
Quick Start Programme – a success story
One efficient way of improving chemicals safety at the national level has been SAICM’s Quick Start Programme (QSP) and the various projects funded through it.
“We established the programme in 2006, initially as a seed funding from SAICM. Despite the programme now being phased out, its results have been impressive, especially given the low levels of funding, which funded projects up to USD 250 000. The programme was open to governments, intergovernmental organisations and civil society actors, which helped it stay flexible and focused on the specific areas where funding has been needed,” Mr Duer says.
Successful projects include initiatives for pesticide monitoring in communities in Mali and Senegal, worker protection in the Dominican Republic, and awareness raising about substances of very high concern (SVHCs) in products in Serbia. To date, 184 projects have been carried out in 108 countries.
In 2015, a Special Programme to support national institutional strengthening in the chemicals and waste cluster was established by the UN Environment Assembly. The programme, which is hosted by UN Environment, supports country-driven institutional strengthening at the national level so that developing countries can begin to manage their chemicals and waste programmes successfully.
“Due to its focus, the programme is only open to governments. This has caused some concerns for some, as obviously civil society would also like access to the funding to support countries,” Mr Duer explains.
Strengthening cooperative international action
What more could institutions like ECHA do to strengthen their contributions on an international level?
Mr Duer has an answer: “ECHA is a repository of an incredible amount of information, and that is definitely something SAICM could benefit from,” he explains. “At the moment, knowledge and information sharing is not happening to the extent SAICM would hope for.”
SAICM has Global Environment Facility (GEF) funding to create a one-stop information platform bringing together data from various sources, including industry, NGOs and governments.
This is where Mr Duer believes ECHA can play a key role in ensuring that policymakers are aware of the information that is already available. “ECHA’s position sometimes makes it difficult for it to join the right tables, but inviting ECHA experts to technical briefings and getting them into SAICM working groups is already a step in the right direction,” he tells.
“In general, ECHA could contribute more to the international efforts by promoting a better understanding of REACH, explaining its elements in a simpler and clearer way, and showing why it has been such a success so that other areas can follow suit,” Mr Duer concludes.
Did you know?
Have you ever thought about the difficulties facing many developing countries that are using synthetic pesticides?
For example, in some countries in Africa, pesticides are one of the primary causes of damage to the health of people living in rural populations. Those communities living and working with pesticides in poor rural areas are at greatest risk from negative health effects from these chemicals. These risks are made worse by the circumstances of their relative poverty, lack of effective regulation systems, illiteracy and limited availability of appropriate information and training.
With funding from the Quick Start Programme Trust Fund, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Africa has implemented a number of activities with local communities and civil society organisations in Mali and Senegal, building awareness and capacity to reduce risks related to pesticide use in the agricultural sector, as well as managing data on pesticide use and chemical exposure incidents.
Interview by Marjaana Lindy
Published on: 13 September 2018
Top image: IStock/bumbumbo
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