Web Date: May 15, 2009
UN Official Challenges Chemical Industry
The United Nations' top environmental official on May 14 challenged the chemical industry to clean up stockpiles of its old, toxic products.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), also asked companies to recommend chemicals for global phaseout, and to contribute money to UN projects designed to make the management of chemicals safer in developing countries. Steiner made his provocative remarks to top chemical industry executives at the second International Conference on Chemicals Management. The May 11-15 UN meeting was held in Geneva.
Speaking at an event sponsored by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), Steiner said manufacturers need to take charge of their past by ridding the world of large inventories of obsolete chemicals, especially pesticides. Hundreds of tons of no longer produced compounds, many of which pose known health risks, are stockpiled in developing countries, especially in Africa. These nations have little or no infrastructure for disposing of them.
By getting rid of these out-of-date substances, companies can concretely reduce risks to public health, Steiner said.
Shell, for example, has removed stockpiles of obsolete pesticides, including dieldrin, from developing countries. Ben Van Beurden, executive vice president at Shell Chemicals, said his company worked with CropLife, a pesticide industry group, in carrying out this work.
Many companies are reluctant to remove old stocks of chemicals they formerly produced because of wide-ranging liability concerns, Steiner said. But if top-level executives get behind these efforts, he noted, companies can work through liability issues and "find a way to make things happen."
Meanwhile, Steiner asked companies to recommend more chemicals for a global treaty that calls for elimination of or restrictions on production or use of persistent organic pollutants. That accord, the 2001 Stockholm Convention, targets persistent organic chemicals that are carcinogens, interfere with reproduction or development, or damage the immune or nervous system. Earlier this month, treaty partners added nine substances to the initial dozen controlled under the treaty.
Overall, industry has more scientists than governments do, and those private-sector experts can generate and analyze the data needed to support listing substances under the Stockholm Convention, Steiner said. He urged manufacturers to adopt the outlook of: "We know there will be transition costs, but we agree these chemicals need [to be] phased out."
Steiner also asked chemical companies to chip in to a global trust fund that pays for UN-selected projects to help developing countries manage commercial chemicals better. Currently, the fund has only gotten money from governments.
"Not every project will be of interest to you," Steiner told the industry executives. "You may be reluctant to put money into a governmental trust fund – and I have a lot of sympathy for that." Perhaps companies can find a way to cofinance these projects, he suggested.
Company executives responded to Steiner's challenges by describing their current international efforts on chemicals management.
Christian Jourquin, president of ICCA, said the association'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 substances. Many small and medium-sized businesses 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, but they lack followup, Steiner asserted. He said the world community needs to convince industry that money invested in UNEP's chemical management projects will return a greater investment than these training efforts.
When asked about Steiner's call for additional industry measures under the UNEP umbrella, Juergen 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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