GENEVA (Reuters) - Chemicals producers and governments agreed on Friday to step up efforts to push for greater safety in chemicals from lead in paint to microscopic substances.
But non-governmental organizations (NGOs) said unless the industry and governments come up with more money, agreed targets for cleaning up chemicals by 2020 were unlikely to be met.
The week-long conference was held at the governing body of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is part of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
“The conference considered that more efforts were necessary to achieve the goal of minimizing the risks of chemicals to human health and the environment,” Matthew Gubb, co-ordinator of the SAICM secretariat, said in a statement.
The conference agreed to step up work on five “emerging issues” — nanotechnology, whose tiny products can harm the body if inhaled; chemicals in products for everyday use; electronic waste, much of which is exported from rich to poor countries for further use as second-hand equipment or for waste treatment; lead in paint, which is particularly harmful to children.
The fifth emerging issue, added at the end of the meeting, is perfluorinated chemicals, used for treating surfaces to make them resistant to heat and corrosion, but which like the chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are toxic, accumulate in the body and spread over long distances.
Juergen Hambrecht, chief executive of BASF, the world’s largest chemical maker, said the chemicals industry was committed to working with groups such as SAICM.
“We in the chemical industry truly believe that the global chemical industry is part of the solution for sustainable society and for a better environment,” he told a briefing.
The industry shared public concerns about the urgency of cleaning up chemical waste and making new products safe, but had to be realistic about what could be achieved, he said.
Demands to eliminate the use of further chemicals under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, supported by the sector, must recognize that some targeted substances were important components for industry, he said.
One such substance is phosgene, used in chemical weapons in World War One, and also used to produce pesticides at a plant in Bhopal, India, where a leak in 1984 caused one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, killing thousands.
But Hambrecht said it is also a key ingredient in most upholstery.
“Phosgene is a major building block. We cannot stop producing phosgene but what we need to do is handle it absolutely safely,” he said.
Hambrecht said 80 percent of major producers had signed up to the Responsible Care initiative of the International Council of Chemical Associations to promote health, safety and environmental performance. It was now important to bring in the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized chemicals producers.
Mariann Lloyd-Smith, co-chair of the International POPs Elimination Network IPEN, which groups 700 NGOs campaigning against the use of toxic substances, called on the industry to make a bigger financial contribution.
“We would expect dollars on the table,” she told the briefing. “There is a legacy that needs money to clean up ... we have thousands of little Bhopals all over this world.”
Without more funding there was likely to be little progress on the emerging issues, she said, calling for investment in greater information about chemicals used in products so that consumers could make informed choices.
Reporting by Jonathan Lynn