Could an IPCC for chemicals save us from poisoning the planet?

A fence in Idaho with warning signs of radioactive material. (Credit: Unsplash/Dan Mayers)

Countries gathered in Nairobi this week agreed to create an international panel on chemicals, much in the image of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

The UN has warned that pollution is the third planetary crisis, along with climate change and biodiversity loss. However, unlike the other two, chemical pollution has received little international attention and has been mostly managed at a national level. Governments are now creating an international body of experts to change that.

Why it matters

There are over 350,000 synthetic man-made chemicals in the world. There is growing evidence that certain chemicals can cause serious health problems including cancer, neurological problems and endocrine disruption, but only a tiny fraction of these substances have been tested for toxicity.

Out of the 143,000 chemicals in the European market, only around 48,000 have filed for registration with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). A study by the agency found that 78 per cent of products sold online including jewellery and toys failed to comply with regulations on restricted chemicals, with some available to consumers containing toxic lead, cadmium or phthalates.

“There's no global documentation and there are little rules for transparency about what chemicals are being used, how they're being used, where they're being used,” said Bethanie Carney, ecotoxicology professor at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, who has been participating in discussions around the proposal for a chemicals panel.

Carney is one of the scientists that revealed last month that the Earth’s threshold for chemical pollution had been breached, meaning that its impacts in Earth systems such as nitrogen cycling or spread of invasive species, are beyond our capacity to understand let alone control.

While there are a few international conventions that set some rules for some chemicals, the vast majority of regulations are set by national governments, creating huge disparities between regions and making it extremely difficult to enforce rules.

“The way that our societies work means that chemicals are transboundary. They're produced in one place and they're shipped to another place, where they're included in a product that is shipped to another place and its waste is then shipped to another place,” Carney said.

Once chemicals enter the environment, they can also travel through the air, water and soil, making it extremely difficult to track, let alone remove them.

What will the panel do?

The body of chemicals experts will look at chemicals as well as pollution. could advise governments, assess the existing science and solutions, and identify future threats, much like other international bodies do.

“It's important that you have an authoritative body like you have the IPCC for climate change or the IPBES for biodiversity, who brings together the best available robust scientific information and makes this available for governments to develop the needed policies,” said Franz Perrez, Swiss Ambassador for the environment, who was one of the leaders of the proposal.

Environmental advocates and experts have also welcomed the initiative. “The resolution (...) is a welcome effort to direct even greater attention to the numerous health and environmental issues surrounding chemicals and waste,” said Giulia Carlini, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), who participated in discussions at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) for the proposal.

But as talks about the form that the body will take are still at an early stage, NGOs are being careful about whose interests will be served. “A lot of the science around chemicals is corporate science. And already we're seeing calls from some governments saying industry should be part of the discussion, that they know the material, they're the innovators. But the chemicals industry has been manufacturing doubt for the past 10 years,” David Azoulay, senior attorney at CIEL told Geneva Solutions.

Big oil has been known to sow doubt about the existence of climate change and experts have been warning that the chemicals industry uses the same tactics. The UN special rapporteur on chemicals, Marcos Orellana, warned in a report last year that chemicals producers were spreading misinformation about the harmful effects of their products.

For Ambassador Perrez, conflict of interest should not be an issue if strict procedures to prevent that are in place: “It's always better to have information brought together in a process like the IPCC, which is transparent, than to rely on research that is not open and is not transparent.”

Designing a conflict of interest policy will be key, according to Paul Whaley, research synthesis methodologist and research fellow at Lancaster University. “There needs to be a very clear interest policy, how interests are declared and how conflicts of interest are defined and managed,” he told Geneva Solutions.

“I don't think we manage interest very well so there would be an opportunity for better understanding on how to identify and manage conflicts of interest in the field as a whole.”

Will we get better policies?

Another question that remains is whether countries will follow the experts' advice.

“The idea that we will get better policy decisions once we have good consensus science is being contradicted by the last 50 years of environmental policymaking,” Azoulay said.

“We've known of the toxicity of lead for 2,000 years and still it's only a minority of countries that ban lead in paint. We have the science, and yet we don't make the decision.”

The IPCC has produced numerous alarming reports over the years and greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise. Governments have started to take measures but their pledges to slash carbon emissions last year still had the world on a path towards 2.7ºC of warming.

While perhaps failing to fulfil its main purpose to the extent that many observers would like, the IPCC does have a redeeming quality. “The IPCC hasn’t been great at pushing for better decision-making but it is an excellent vehicle for public awareness,” Azoulay observed.

Experts say that the issue of chemical pollution has remained under the radar because it is viewed as technical and complex for the public to grasp. A chemicals panel could bring the needed attention, help people understand the seriousness of it and push them to ask their governments to act.

“You can’t see chemicals and the effects they have are individually subtle, but cumulatively hugely challenging and problematic,” Whaley noted.

“But it’s possible to grasp what's going on with climate change and that's incredibly complicated, with lots of issues around economics, development, social justice, etc. The IPCC has probably had a very important role in making these things intelligible.”

Asked where the panel could be based, Perrez said: “The place is still to be determined but Geneva would be a very good place. The chemicals and waste division of UNEP, the WHO, the business industry and many NGOs like WWF are based there, so the panel could benefit from the proximity of all these actors.”