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Countries Adopt Global Labeling, Classification System

by Cheryl Hogue
February 27, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 9

Government Response

A concrete step that many nations are taking to implement the new worldwide strategy for managing chemicals is adoption of a global system for labeling and classifying substances.

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) is designed to protect health and the environment and to facilitate global trade in chemicals. It includes internationally agreed upon cautionary statements as well as symbols, called pictograms, for chemical properties such as environmental toxicity, as shown. The international goal is to have GHS in place in as many parts of the world as possible by 2008 (C&EN, May 23, 2005, page 31).

Two countries, New Zealand and Mauritius, have already adopted GHS, said Achim Halpaap, principal program coordinator for chemical and waste management training at the United Nations Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR). The U.S., Canada, the European Union, and Australia are in the midst of implementing the global system, he said.

Meanwhile, several African and Southeast Asian countries have started work on adopting it, Halpaap said at a Feb. 5 briefing on GHS that was held during the chemical management negotiations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

In the U.S., four agencies are involved with putting GHS in place: the Department of Transportation, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The Transportation Department expects to have most of its regulations in effect by 2007. OSHA, meanwhile, is working to amend its existing hazard communication standard, which requires chemical manufacturers to provide material safety data sheets for their products.

Charles M. Auer, director of EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics, said at the briefing that his agency is developing regulations for applying GHS to pesticides for health hazards and short-term environmental hazards. In addition, EPA is studying whether it should require hazard classification and labeling for commercial chemicals that pose a threat to aquatic ecosystems, he said.

CPSC, meanwhile, may not be able to adopt the global system under current federal law because some classifications for chemicals are spelled out in statute. The commission is determining whether it will have to ask Congress to amend current U.S. law so it can implement GHS, Auer said.

The European Commission, the administrative branch of the EU, hopes GHS can be adopted simultaneously with legislation on the Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals (REACH), said Eva Sandberg of the EC's Environment Directorate-General. Sandberg said she hoped both REACH and GHS would enter into force in early 2007.

By the end of March, the EC expects to finish an analysis of the impacts of adopting the global system, she said. The EC hopes to make a formal legislative proposal on this issue by mid-2006. The European Parliament and Council of Ministers, which function as the European Union's legislature, possibly could agree on the legislation as early as the end of 2006, Sandberg said.

Meanwhile, UNITAR has been helping eight developing countries to implement GHS by providing guidance and assistance in developing training materials, Halpaap said. The countries are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Nigeria, the Philippines, Senegal, Thailand, and the Gambia.

Many developing nations believe that having a single worldwide system for classifying hazards and labeling chemicals will help boost their exports.

GHS is "very promising" for improving the management and use of chemicals, said Bj??rn Erikson of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Its pictograms will provide elementary hazard information to all workers who handle chemicals, most of whom are employed outside the chemical manufacturing industry, he said. Pictograms are especially important to laborers who are illiterate or do not read the official language of the country in which they work. However, the GHS pictograms can be hard to understand and workers must be trained on what they mean, Erikson said.

Duangtip Hongsamoot, of the Thailand Ministry of Public Health, agreed. She said her country recently studied how well people comprehended the GHS pictograms and found that some of the symbols are not easily understood.

Erikson said that when workers are trained on the meaning of the pictograms, they are likely to pass this information on to their families and communities. This kind of communication, he said, will further increase the effectiveness of the global system.




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