February 13, 2006

Global ministers of environment, health sign Dubai Declaration on managing chemicals

Delegates to an international conference on managing chemicals have agreed to a new global initiative aimed at making chemicals safer for humans and the environment. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) addresses a wide range of health and environmental issues, from risk assessments of chemicals and harmonized labeling to dealing with obsolete and stockpiled products.

Called the Dubai Declaration (for the United Arab Emirates city in which the conference was held), the initiative also carries provisions for national centres aimed at helping countries, especially in the developing world, train staff in chemical safety including dealing with spills and accidents.

Agreed to by more than 100 environment and health ministers, the Dubai Declaration puts the world community on track to meet a commitment made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. During that event, governments agreed to aim to use and produce chemicals in ways that minimize adverse effects to health and the environment. The SAICM is also among the first concrete outcomes of the 2005 World Summit, held last September in New York and attended by heads of state.

A voluntary agreement, the SAICM comes at a time when worldwide chemical production is set to climb by as much as 80% over the next 15 years. Estimates suggest that there may be between 70,000 and 100,000 chemicals already on the market, with an estimated 1,500 new ones being marketed each year.

At the same time, chemical production is shifting from the developed to the developing world.

The SAICM builds on previous chemical-related treaties such as the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPS), which covers chemicals like the pesticide DDT and substances such as PCB, once widely used in certain kinds of electrical equipment.

However, said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), "it has been clear for some time that simply ticking off groups of chemicals one by one was becoming impractical. A new approach, a new way forward for chemicals management was needed, which is what SAICM now offers.

"I am delighted that governments could agree to this new chemicals initiative which I sincerely believe will be a step change in the way we use and produce chemicals. All kinds of chemicals are vital in the modern world. They have a key role in overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable development.

"Nevertheless," Toepfer continued, "if the past is our guide, some seemingly benign products can prove to have deleterious impacts. Meanwhile developing countries need help in terms of the better use, handling and disposal of chemicals. So we must use the best science and treat chemicals with respect," he said.

Government representatives attending the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) also gave support to a multi-million dollar fund called "Quick Start." This program is aimed at giving financial support to national action plans for managing chemicals, especially in states classified by the United Nations as least developed countries and small island developing states.

The February 4-6 ICCM, which immediately preceded the 9th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (February 7-9), was organized by UNEP in co-operation with other UN bodies and organizations and with participation by industry, business, trade unions and other civil society groups. UNEP will house the SAICM secretariat.

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