International Programme on Chemical Safety

Identifying & verifying chemical incidents and emergencies of international concern

In December 2001, WHO, through IPCS, convened an expert consultation on the public health response to chemical incidents, including those of deliberate origin. At that consultation, it was recognized that many countries had limited capacity to respond to chemical incidents, and that chemical incidents occurring in one country could potentially be of international significance. It was concluded that there was a need to strengthen both national and global chemical incident preparedness and response through the development of an early warning system and a programme of capacity strengthening in Member States.

In May 2002, the 55th World Health Assembly agreed a resolution (WHA55.16) expressing concern about the global public health implications of a possible release or deliberate use of biological, chemical or radionuclear agents. The assembly urged Member States, with the support of WHO, to strengthen systems for surveillance, emergency preparedness and response.

In a further development (May 2003), the 56th World Health Assembly agreed a resolution (WHA56.28) to revise the International Health Regulations (IHR) to cover not just cholera, plague and yellow fever, but also biological, chemical or radiological events of 'international concern'.

In response to these developments, IPCS started to build upon previous activities for providing guidance for preparedness and response to chemical accidents and emergencies to include:

  • Piloting of a Global Chemical Incident Alert, Surveillance and Response System
  • Compiling a database of global chemical incidents of public health significance in order to improve the knowledge base

WHO Global Chemical Incident Alert, Surveillance and Response System

In August 2002 IPCS established a joint operation centre with the existing WHO Global Alert and Response (GAR) team for infectious diseases. Everyday, the outbreak verification team screens information about disease outbreaks of potential international concern received from a wide range of sources, including the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), ChemiNet, the Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN), WHO regional and country representatives, official government sources, WHO Collaborating Centres, non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, news media, eyewitnesses, and others. These outbreaks may be of chemical, biological, radiological or unknown origin. The team carries out a risk assessment to determine whether there is a need to alert the government concerned and whether assistance should be offered in response to the outbreak.

Database of Global Chemical Incidents of Public Health Significance

In August 2002 IPCS started to compile a database of global chemical incidents. This database is compiled from various sources and includes details of: the date the incident occurred; the location and type of incident; the chemical(s) released; the public health impact of the incident; the public health action taken; and whether the event met the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) criteria for an event of potential international public health concern.

The database of global chemical incidents can serve to identify sentinel events and provide alerts, describing the public health consequences resulting from acute incidents and provide a mechanism for capacity strengthening.

During the first phase of this work, from 1 August 2002 to 30 April 2003, approximately 25,000 events were scrutinised: of these, 364 (1.5%) were identified as being eligible for inclusion in the global database. Of the 364 events, 27 (7.4%) met the criteria for chemical incidents of potential international concern.