Managing Chemicals | June 1, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 22 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 22 | pp. 22-24
Issue Date: June 1, 2009

Managing Chemicals

UN conference expands global strategy to include PFCs, nanomaterials, other emerging concerns
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: UN, global warming, managing chemicals, perfluorocarbons, nanomaterials
Hambrecht (left) and Steiner (right) listen while Eržen describes the results of the 2nd International Conference on Chemicals Management.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Hambrecht (left) and Steiner (right) listen while Eržen describes the results of the 2nd International Conference on Chemicals Management.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

THREE YEARS AGO in Dubai, representatives from governments, industry, and citizen groups from all over the globe crafted guidelines aimed at ensuring that chemicals will be made, transported, used, and disposed of safely. Their agreement, called the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, is designed to help meet the United Nations' goal of having a comprehensive worldwide plan for managing chemicals in place by 2020.

Last month, a similar diversity of representatives again met to discuss chemical management. They identified five issues that have come to the fore since the strategic approach was adopted in 2006, and they expanded the guidelines to incorporate those concerns.

"This is a unique and comprehensive effort to address chemical issues holistically, bringing all concerned actors and stakeholders to one table," said Ivan Eržen, Slovenia's secretary of health. He presided over the recent meeting, the UN International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM), which was held in Geneva.

The five emerging issues identified at the conference are the expanding use of perfluorocarbons (PFCs), access to information on chemicals used in products, hazardous substances in old electronic equipment, nanomaterials, and lead in paint.

PFCs are a family of environmentally persistent synthetic chemicals that are used to make nonstick coatings for cookware, stain-resistant fibers, fire-fighting foams, and semiconductors. The production and use of these chemicals is growing, especially in the developing world. The new global guidance concerning these chemicals is soft. It calls merely for consideration of stewardship programs for PFCs and for efforts on global elimination of these compounds "where appropriate and technically feasible."

The move on PFCs was linked to recent action under a UN environmental treaty—the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. In early May, treaty partners listed a group of PFCs—perfluorooctane sulfonate, its salts, and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride—because of concern that these chemicals may harm health and are increasingly being found in people's blood. The treaty's listing for the group of PFCs included many exemptions and noted that these substances are used in a wide range of applications.

As a complement to the Stockholm Convention, the ICCM agreement encourages governments, industry, and citizen groups to exchange information on PFC alternatives.

IN ADDITION to establishing the new guidelines for PFCs, the Geneva conference called for greater public access to information on chemicals in products.

Hazardous substances may be incorporated into products that are traded globally, said Johanna Lissinger Peitz, head of ecomanagement and chemicals at the Swedish Ministry of Environment. Exposure to these hazardous substances can happen during manufacture, use, recycling, or disposal of products, she noted.

Unless manufacturers have complete information on what chemicals are used in the component parts they rely on to make their consumer goods, makers of those products may face costly recalls, Lissinger Peitz said. The toy industry suffered such a fate last year when lead was discovered in paints that were applied to some products. Or companies may find that disposal of their products creates hazardous waste and pollution, she said.

Daniel Paska, an environmental expert for Sony Ericsson, a global manufacturer of mobile phones, endorsed the idea of companies finding out which chemicals are in the products they produce. After Sony Ericsson obtained data from suppliers about the chemicals in the components they were shipping to the company, the phone manufacturer took action. It phased out the use of polyvinyl chloride in its phones and stopped using halogenated flame retardants in casings, printed wiring boards, and cables. The company is currently eliminating antimony and beryllium from its components as well. These actions will make the company's products safer for consumers and those who recycle or dispose of the phones, Paska said.

In a related move, ICCM conferees addressed the issue of hazardous substances that can be released during the life cycle of electronic and electric equipment. The participants set an undefined goal of reducing exposure to hazardous compounds from equipment that is discarded or near the end of its life that is ending up in the developing world in mass quantities. In poor countries, this material is often recycled or discarded in ways that expose people, especially children, to toxic substances.

The booming field of nanotechnology was also on the ICCM agenda. Participants agreed that information should be shared globally about the risks and benefits of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials. But environmental activists said they were disappointed delegates did not agree to a more detailed plan addressing nanomaterials.

"We cannot be satisfied that industry is going to voluntarily hand over information" on nanomaterials, said Imogen Ingram of the environmental group Island Sustainability in the Cook Islands, which are in the South Pacific. "We would strongly urge industry to implement labeling of articles containing them."

ICCM participants also endorsed a phaseout of the use of lead in paints. Some delegates questioned the designation of lead paint as an "emerging" chemical management issue because it has been recognized as a serious public health problem for decades. Others responded that although use of the neurotoxic metal in most paints and coatings in industrialized countries ceased years ago, the sale of lead-based paints is increasing in the developing world. In some areas, lead-based paint is being introduced into cultures that have not historically used paint.

A REPRESENTATIVE of Myanmar, the country formerly called Burma, said his country faces bigger health threats from old lead-acid batteries and lead in outdated electronic equipment than from paint. But others welcomed the ICCM focus on lead in paint. For instance, a diplomat from Mauritius said his nation has phased out lead in gasoline and in paints manufactured within its borders only to find that many imported paints contain the metal.

As a show of support for negotiations on international chemical management issues, several top-level corporate officials from the chemical industry attended ICCM. Calvin M. Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, a U.S. trade association, said the executives came to the Geneva meeting because of their commitment to ensuring that their products are made and used in a safe manner around the world. One of the corporate officials, Dow Executive Vice President David E. Kepler, said chemical companies need to step up and show they can work together on international issues.

Chemical industry executives attending ICCM may have been surprised by the challenges they got from Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Steiner asked the executives to become more engaged in the global chemical management activities that ICCM participants—which include industry representatives—have identified as priorities. Right now, he said, companies are involved only in chemical management projects that serve industry priorities, such as product stewardship training. They need to become more integrated into the activities that are part of the global strategic plan, he said.

For instance, Steiner beckoned the executives to clean up stocks of their companies' obsolete pesticides and other old chemicals in the developing world. He praised Shell for removing stockpiles of dieldrin and other old pesticides that it formerly manufactured from developing countries but indicated that more needs to be done by other companies.

Ben van Beurden, executive vice president of Shell Chemicals, said his company worked with CropLife International, a pesticide industry group, in carrying out this work.

The UNEP chief also asked chemical companies to recommend persistent compounds that should be listed under the Stockholm Convention and phased out globally. And he asked them to help fund UN projects for improving chemical management in developing countries. Money for these projects has historically come only from government donations.

Executives responded to Steiner's challenges by describing their current efforts to improve chemical management. Christian Jourquin, president of the International Council of Chemical Associations, said the group's member companies are reaching out to small and medium-sized chemical manufacturers, especially in the developing world, to train them on the sound handling and use of chemicals. It is often hard for many small and medium-sized businesses to receive such training because they are not members of national or regional chemical trade organizations, pointed out Jourquin, who is chief executive officer of Solvay.

Such training efforts are a good first step toward the goal of an integrated global framework for managing chemicals, but they lack follow-up, Steiner asserted. He said the world community needs to convince industry that money invested in UN chemical management projects will return a greater investment than the private training efforts.

When asked about Steiner's call for additional industry measures under the UN umbrella, Jürgen Hambrecht, BASF's chairman of the board, told reporters that voluntary training programs by large companies already amount to "a lot," noting that those large firms work with tens of thousands of small and medium-sized chemical makers around the world. The chemical industry, he added, is firmly committed to continuing these efforts.

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