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Urgent action needed to curb global chemical pollution, UN says

Countries must work together to manage chemicals and waste globally, report adds

by Paula Dupraz-Dobias, special to C&EN
March 14, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 11

Photo of a set of people up on a dais in front of an audience.
Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Newscom
The United Nations released its second Global Chemicals Outlook on March 11 at the start of the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya.

The United Nations calls for urgent measures to be taken to reduce serious threats from chemical pollution to human health, the environment, and economies in a report released March 11.

The second Global Chemicals Outlook, released at the start of the five-day UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, calls for greater use of sustainable materials and better education of the adverse impacts of chemical use.

The $5 trillion chemical industry, projected to double by 2030, continues to release large quantities of hazardous substances into the air, soils, and water, the UN report says. Such substances are found in food and people. The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to selected chemicals led to 1.6 million deaths in 2016.

The UN chemicals outlook says improving legislation in developing countries may provide opportunities for innovative financing for sustainability projects, while other policies could be enacted to encourage consumer awareness and integration of green and sustainable chemistry in education.

Countries must also work together to develop a global framework for the management of chemical substances and waste, the report says. It estimates that taking action would yield benefits “in the high tens of billions of United States dollars annually.”

“The findings of the second Global Chemicals Outlook are very important for developing countries,” David Kapindula, a member of the report’s steering committee, said in a statement. “They highlight the uneven implementation of chemicals and waste management and point to opportunities for enhanced knowledge sharing, capacity development and innovative financing.”

Further specific measures to curb chemical pollution are expected to be debated at another UN conference next month in Uruguay.

Coinciding with the publication of the UN report, a global chemical industry group, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), released its own analysis of the industry’s contributions to the global economy, including providing 120 million jobs worldwide.

“The chemical industry is an irreplaceable contributor to global GDP, a source of skilled employment opportunities and a major enabler of progress in the environmental, social and economic aspects of sustainable development as reflected in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals,” ICCA secretary and American Chemistry Council CEO Cal Dooley said in a statement.

Meanwhile, delegates at the environment forum are also striving to achieve a global agreement to curb plastic pollution. The UN estimates that the world produces 300 million metric tons of plastic waste annually, 8 million tons of which end up in the Earth’s oceans.


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