New International Chemicals Policies

As these new chemicals management policies have been emerging in Europe, they have been joined by a growing body of international chemicals management policies developed under United Nations agencies. Several of these have emerged in the form of international treaties, or international environmental agreements, drawn up by multinational negotiating conferences convened by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The first such agreements drafted during the 1970s and 1980s focused on wastes and pollution, including treaties protecting regional seas ("Barcelona," "Oslo," and so on), prohibiting ocean disposal of wastes ("London Dumping Convention"), protecting the atmospheric ozone layer ("Vienna Convention"), or regulating international trade in hazardous wastes ("Basel Convention"). However, by the late 1990s, international treaties were also being developed that directly targeted the production and sales of products of the chemical industry.

The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent was built out of earlier efforts by UNEP and the international Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to encourage voluntary product declarations by exporting companies of toxic substances (particularly pesticides) destined for sales in developing countries. In 1998 a drafting convention meeting in Rotterdam formally signed an agreement requiring that the export of certain listed chemicals could only take place with the "prior informed consent" of the relevant agencies in importing countries. The initial list of chemicals covers 22 pesticides and five industrial chemicals, although the convention permits the addition of more substances over time. This treaty was ratified by the required fifty countries in 2003 and came into force in February of 2004.

In 1996, the International Forum on Chemical Safety concluded that evidence was sufficient to call for international action to ban the use of 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs). On the basis of this recommendation, UNEP convened a drafting committee in 1997 and, three years later, a final agreement was signed in Stockholm. This Stockholm Convention requires action plans and schedules for the elimination of the production and use of nine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls, the severe restriction of the use of DDT, and best control measures for reducing the generation of dioxin and hexaclorobenzene as inadvertent contaminants of certain production and disposal processes. As with the Rotterdam Convention this agreement permits more substances to be included over time. This convention was fully ratified and came into force in May of 2004 (Secretariate of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 2001).

By providing limited international authority for managing chemical trade and for phasing out the most dangerous substances, the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions have laid the basis for more comprehensive policies. In 2002, the administrators of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm conventions published a proposal for "clustering" their authorities to facilitate a more integrated lifecycle approach to the management of hazardous chemicals. Recognizing this, delegates to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development called for a comprehensive new global strategy for the sound management of chemicals. In November of 2003, an opening conference on a "Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)" was convened by UNEP in Bangkok. This conference drafted an initial outline for a strategy and set a schedule for drafting a new international agreement by 2005.

It is too early to assess where the emerging international policies on the management of chemicals will be going, but, given the United Nations' strong commitment to the idea of sustainable development, it can be expected that these initiatives will be seeking the development of a sounder and safer chemical industry. The industry will certainly be heavily involved in crafting those policies, but so will many government agencies and nongovernment organizations. There is a long history since the earliest efforts to control pollution and wastes from the chemical industry. Today, the chemical industry and its products have become the central focus of both national and international policy developments. How these policies develop and who bears what costs will substantially determine the prospects for a new, more sustainable chemical industry in the future.

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