The global chemical industry is lobbying to keep a U.N. agreement focused on the safe management of bulk chemicals. It does want to see it expanded to include acting on highly hazardous pesticides or pharmaceutical products that persist in the environment.
That lobbying is in full swing at the fourth International Conference on Chemicals Management, which is being held this week in Geneva. At the conference, which has taken place every three years since 2006, governments, environmental and health activists, and the chemical industry discuss how to improve the manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal of commercial substances worldwide. These U.N.-sponsored gatherings are particularly focused on helping developing countries build up the basic know-how and ability to manage chemicals in commerce safely. By 2020, developing countries are expected to produce 31% and use 33% of chemicals worldwide according to the U.N.
The chemical industry is making its push because pending at the conference are proposals to expand work under a U.N. agreement called the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) to highly hazardous pesticides and environmentally persistent drugs.
Manufacturers of commercial chemicals, who have been involved with SAICM since its inception in 2002, aren’t enthusiastic about broadening global efforts under this agreement. Instead, they want SAICM to focus resources on its main goal—helping developing countries establish their own capacity to manage chemicals safety, says Greg Skelton, senior director for international affairs at the American Chemistry Council, a trade association of chemical manufacturers. Skelton is serving as the global chemical industry’s representative to the high-level talks at the Geneva meeting.
Safely managing commercial chemicals is an essential skill for economies to master as they continue to develop, Skelton continues. “You cannot have a sustainable manufacturing sector without sound chemicals management,” he explains.
Environmental activists are calling for the Geneva meeting to create a global alliance of governments, industry, and activists that would ratchet back the use of highly hazardous pesticides. These substances “continue to be widely used and there is no comprehensive, international approach to their phaseout,” say Olga Speranskaya, cochair of a coalition of environmental groups called IPEN. Safer alternatives to highly hazardous pesticides “are available and in use, especially agroecology and ecosystem approaches to pest and weed management,” says Sarojeni Rengam of the international Pesticide Action Network.
CropLife International, a global farm chemical industry association, is concerned that the proposal to expand work under SAICM could duplicate efforts on highly hazardous pesticides already underway by three U.N. agencies, says Keith Jones, CropLife’s director of stewardship and sustainable agriculture. The U.N’s World Health Organization, its Food & Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Environment Programme are already working to curb health and environmental problems from exposure to these substances.
Although the conference will decide whether to expand SAICM’s work to include environmentally persistent drugs, some leading pharmaceutical industry groups do not appear to be active at the Geneva meeting. These include the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America.