Dr Kerstin Leitner addresses the First Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Covention
World Health Organization Statement to the Conference of the Parties of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade
PIC COP1, 20-24 September 2004, Geneva, Switzerland
Delivered by: Dr Kerstin Leitner, Assistant Director-General, Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments, World Health Organization.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour and a pleasure to address this first Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention on behalf of the World Health Organization.
In Rio in 1992 when governments committed to the achievement of full global participation in the Prior Informed Consent Procedure, they also agreed a number of Principles which have guided the work of the international community in striving for sustainable development for the past twelve years. The first of these principles is that "Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature".
The importance of chemical safety for human health and the link between health and environment have been recognized for some time. Chemical technology underpins much of modern society and the forms and uses of chemicals are many. Production of chemicals is projected to increase over the coming years, particularly so in developing countries, and trade in these chemicals can also be expected to increase. It is vital therefore that all countries have the capacity to make decisions about the import of these traded chemicals, and it is this essential function that the Rotterdam Convention will perform.
We heard FAO, in opening remarks earlier in the week describe the contribution that the Rotterdam Convention will make to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Taken as a whole, the MDGs focus on human development and poverty reduction, and they are now commonly accepted as the framework for measuring development progress. While chemical safety is not explicitly mentioned in the MDGs, Target 8 covers malaria "and other major diseases", which is widely interpreted to mean non-communicable as well as communicable diseases. As we all recognize, exposure to hazardous chemicals contributes significantly to the development of non-communicable diseases.
The burden of disease in some low-income regions acts as a barrier to economic growth. The links between social, economic and environment pillars are most evident among the poor who frequently live in unsafe and crowded settlements and who are therefore more likely to be exposed to air pollutants and other health risks at home and at work, who consume insufficient and poor quality food, and who are exposed to other health risks.
We need to increase dramatically our understanding of the links between exposure to toxic chemicals, including POPs and heavy metals, and the diseases they cause. Armed with this knowledge, we then need to act to eliminate use of those chemicals posing the greatest risks, while continuing to reduce unnecessary exposure to chemicals generally. We need to fill gaps in abilities to access, interpret and apply scientific knowledge. We need better methods and criteria to determine the impact of chemicals on health (and thereby on the economy) to set priorities for action, for the detection of chemicals, and to monitor progress of management actions. Further work is needed to promote alternatives to highly-toxic, persistent and bio-accumulating chemicals. While actions to address specific highly hazardous chemicals will always have their place, we will only make a real impact on this human health problem through a range of broad preventive strategies, including education and awareness raising, and capacity building in risk communication. Sound management of chemicals will not only reduce human disease, but also economic losses. WHO is working on a number of fronts to address these issues.
In order to protect the health of their people, countries must have information and tools to make decisions on which chemicals and pesticides can be used safely in local conditions, and if they are to be used, how they may be used safely. The Rotterdam Convention provides a first line of defence, giving countries such tools and information needed to identify potential hazards and to exclude chemicals they cannot manage safely and which impact adversely on human health. The Rotterdam Convention may be a "Multilateral Environment Agreement", but it is also a pro-health Agreement. WHO as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work, is committed to making continued efforts to improve chemical safety, both through its own programmes and in provision of expert technical advice to support the work of others, including the Rotterdam Convention. In concert with this, WHO is actively engaged in support of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which has also recently entered into force, and the development of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).
WHO has already contributed in a number of concrete ways to the development and implementation of the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure. WHO has participated in the meetings of the International Negotiating Committee (INC) and Interim Chemical Review Committee (ICRC), which have worked so hard over the past eight years to get us here today.
Significantly, although the Convention applies to Parties, and the risk assessments on which country notifications and decisions must be based must come from those Parties, they have extensively used WHO/International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS)1 chemical risk assessments for this purpose. Almost all of the 41 chemicals, pesticides and severely hazardous pesticide formulations included in the Convention so far, cited IPCS assessments in the supporting documentation for their inclusion. In only two cases was an IPCS assessment not cited.
This is not just a case of countries referring to a WHO/IPCS assessment to support a notification for the sole purpose of this Convention. It is the result of the use of these WHO/IPCS assessments to make national risk management decisions, which the Convention then requires countries to report.
Also, a number of these WHO assessments were performed, with FAO, by the Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues, which supports the important international work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Such assessments therefore have multiple uses and facilitate consistent decision-making.
WHO contributes technical information on chemicals and pesticides under consideration for inclusion in the Convention to further assist decision-making by Parties. For example, in response to a specific request of the INC, WHO, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), is preparing to conduct an assessment of alternatives to chrysotile asbestos. This assessment aims to assist national decision-making about the continued use or not of this hazardous carcinogenic substance.
WHO stands ready to assist Parties through the delivery of technical assistance in cooperation with our sister Inter-governmental Organizations (IGOs). Over half of the respondents to the Rotterdam Secretariat's study on technical assistance made specific requests for assistance related to the assessment of industrial chemicals and pesticides, including through such means as: provision of common risk assessment models and procedures; participation in technical risk assessment meetings; and a mechanism for developing countries to request assistance from international organizations in conducting risk evaluations. WHO's programme on internationally harmonized risk assessment methods and its assessments of problem chemicals which are conducted by geographically-representative committees of experts drawn from all over the world and published by IPCS, contribute to the international community's efforts in meeting these needs. WHO's work on pesticides aims to assist countries to obtain information on pesticide exposures and poisonings and to provide training in safe management of pesticides. The IPCS Pesticides Package that includes the training manual is noted in the technical assistance paper for this COP1 as an opportunity to be explored, which WHO welcomes. The draft manual has also been recognized as a useful tool at other intergovernmental meetings, including those of the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety.
Through its global network of poisons centres, WHO can mobilize awareness in countries and regions about how chemicals subject to the Convention are used and identify possible future chemicals for consideration, such as acutely toxic pesticides, from information obtained on human poisonings. WHO has also established a surveillance alert and response system for chemical incidents of potential international public health importance. Through its existing networks of poisons centres and its emerging networks for the preparedness and response to chemical incidents, WHO can assist in the assessment and strengthening of national infrastructures and capacities.
WHO is making a concerted effort to work even more through its regional offices and in countries, providing a welcome opportunity to work with regional centres and other assistance networks established to support this Convention, and indeed other Conventions dealing with chemicals and waste. We look forward to engaging with all of you, at international, regional and country level, in the important work of supporting and implement this Convention, to improve the health of our people.
1 IPCS: International Programme on Chemical Safety (WHO/ILO/UNEP)