Urgent actions required to prevent illness and death from hazardous chemicals and waste

Geneva, 5 April 2019 – Recently, the World Health Organization estimated the ‘disease burden’ preventable through sound management and reduction of chemicals in the environment at around 1.6 million lives per year.1 As the international community marks World Health Day, three UN conventions whose aim is the sound management of chemicals and waste are stressing the need for urgent and greater actions from governments to reduce the number of illnesses and death from hazardous chemicals and wastes.

Causes of death attributable to unsound management of chemicals and wastes include cancers, cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congenital anomalies, chronic kidney disease, poisonings, and self-harm.2

One of the pathways taken by hazardous chemicals into the human body is through our food and liquid intake. Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs) are highly toxic chemicals known to be carcinogenic, which accumulate in the fatty tissue of mammals, birds and fish. POPs become more concentrated in higher reaches of the food chain, culminating in humans, potentially leading to serious health effects including certain cancers birth defects dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to diseases, and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Toxic chemicals present in the air also impact our health if we inhale them.

The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions work to protect people from these harmful impacts in a multitude of ways. With 187, 161, and 182 parties respectively, the three conventions are nearly universal and are legally-binding, covering the life-cycle of hazardous chemicals and wastes, protecting human health and the environment at every stage. This starts with the reduction and elimination of toxic chemicals, includes the minimisation and environmentally sound management of wastes such as electronic waste, mercury waste, plastic waste and more, as well as the creation of innovative public-private partnerships to tackle household waste, mobile phones, and computing equipment.

For example, the Basel Convention – which in March 2019 marked 30 years since adoption and which is primarily concerned with providing the legal framework for controlling transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and other wastes – has developed globally-agreed technical guidelines on how to manage different waste streams in an environmentally sound manner, including the prevention of impacts on human health from lead acid batteries, healthcare and medical waste, and electronic waste, to name just three.

The Rotterdam Convention features transparent trade regulation measures and an obligatory information-sharing system to enable and ensure informed decision-making from governments regarding the refusal, or import and proper use, of more than 50 hazardous industrial chemicals and agricultural pesticides already listed under the Convention. This has led to lowered health risks to people handling such substances, especially including vulnerable groups such as the rural poor, and women and children.

Meanwhile Parties to the Stockholm Convention have listed 28 of the world’s most toxic substances, leading to measurable lowered human exposure as a result of these chemicals’ reduction or elimination, as demonstrated through the Convention’s Global Monitoring Plan which found lowered levels globally in polychlorinated diphenyls (PCBs), DDT and dioxins and furans.3

At the same time, the need for urgent action to achieve the sound management of chemicals and wastes was a key concern at the recent Fourth UN Environment Assembly, where a Resolution4 was adopted on this subject calling on governments and all other relevant stakeholders to take note of progress achieved by the chemicals and waste conventions and to encourage all stakeholders to seek the establishment of permanent programs of information directed to consumers and the public in general, on the risks generated by chemicals and raise awareness of the responsibilities related to their management.

Further decisions which will help prevent illness and reduce preventable deaths will be taken at the next Conference of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, in Geneva from 29 April to 10 May 2019, the theme for which is “Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste”. Draft decisions to be discussed include the listing under the Stockholm Convention of the fluorinated chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), widely used as a water and oil repellent and found to contaminate drinking water supplies in many communities and Dicofol, a highly toxic organochlorine pesticide used to control mites on many crops and known to be harmful to humans and the environment; the listing of seven additional chemicals under the Rotterdam Convention; and a new Basel Convention partnership on plastic waste and amendments to better incorporate plastic waste into the existing control mechanisms of the Convention.

Notes for Editors:

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes and is almost universal, with 187 Parties. With an overarching objective of protecting human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, its scope covers a wide range of wastes defined as “hazardous” based on their origin and/or composition and characteristics, as well as two types of wastes defined as “other wastes” – household waste and incinerator ash. See www.basel.int

The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, is jointly administered by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment (UNEP). The 161 Parties to this legally-binding Convention share responsibility and cooperate to safely manage chemicals in international trade. To date 50 chemicals and pesticides are listed in its Annex III. The Convention does not introduce bans but facilitates the exchange of information among Parties on hazardous chemicals and pesticides, and their potential risks, to inform and improve national decision making. In addition, through the PIC Procedure, it provides a legally-binding mechanism to support national decisions on the import of selected chemicals and pesticides in order to minimize the risk they pose to human health and the environment.See www.pic.int

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment. Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The Convention requires its Parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment. As of today, this legally-binding Convention has 182 Parties, giving it almost universal coverage. To date, 28 chemicals of global concern have been listed under the Stockholm Convention.

For BRS conventions general media enquiries see: www.brsmeas.org or contact:

Charlie AVIS,
Public Information Officer (UN Environment), Geneva



1 World Health Organization, 201, The public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns: data addendum for 2016. www.who.int/iris/handle/10665/279001

2 Ibid.

3 See Stockholm Convention factsheets available at: chm.pops.int/?tabid=5559

4 UNEP, 2019, Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste, Resolution UNEP/EA.4/L.9 - Available at: https://papersmart.unon.org/resolution/uploads/k1900787.pdf