The future agreement will enable Governments to prevent chemicals that they cannot safely manage from entering the country while helping them to improve chemicals management at the national level. This should lead to better global control over those industrial and agricultural chemicals that are dangerous to human health or the environment.
With worldwide sales of over $1 trillion annually, the chemicals industry is a vital part of the global economy. "If properly designed and implemented, this new agreement will demonstrate that economic development can coexist with a healthy environment," says Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of UNEP. "Most importantly, it will give us the safety net we need to prevent the kinds of tragic accidents and mistakes we have seen in the past from ever occurring again."
According to FAO, Many small farmers and their families in developing countries face a considerable risk of acute pesticide poisoning. They cannot safely handle highly hazardous pesticides due to socio-economic and climatic conditions. In addition, some pesticides designed for temperate zones may cause severe health or environmental problems when used in the tropics.
"Chemicals and pesticides that are most damaging to human health and the environment should disappear from agricultural systems and should be replaced by more benign pesticides that are applied within the context of Integrated Pest Management," says Abdoulaye Sawadogo, FAO Assistant Director-General.
Public awareness of chemicals has grown with the dramatic increase in chemicals production and trade since the 1960s. Many chemicals and pesticides are harmful to humans, animals, and ecosystems. They can be highly hazardous, cause cancer or birth defects, or enter the food chain and then gradually accumulate in the vital organs of people before reaching hazardous levels. Chemicals such as asbestos, which is still exported around the world, are now known to be carcinogenic.
The negotiations on a legally binding agreement have their roots in earlier efforts by FAO and UNEP to promote chemical safety. They include the 1985 International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides and the 1987 London Guidelines for the Exchange of Information on Chemicals in International Trade. These two voluntary systems promote the sharing of information among Governments and encourage them to shift towards less hazardous chemicals.
However, as some pesticides and other chemicals that are banned or severely restricted in certain developed countries are still widely used elsewhere, particularly in developing countries, the governing bodies of FAO and UNEP introduced the voluntary Prior Informed Consent Procedure in 1989.
Prior Informed Consent, or PIC, is the principle that exports of dangerous substances should not proceed unless agreed by the importing country. It allows importers to learn more about the characteristics of hazardous chemicals so that they can decide whether to accept future imports of these chemicals. Exporting countries are then notified which products the importing countries no longer want to receive, and they work with their chemicals industries to ensure that illegal imports do not occur.
Although the voluntary PIC procedure has been a success, Governments now see a need for member countries to adopt mandatory controls on trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
The first two rounds of talks, held in March and September of last year, were marked by broad agreement on most fundamentals. Delegates are focusing now on the detailed procedures and the particular chemicals to be included under the agreement. The current meeting has been completely financed by the Government of Switzerland.
As of May 1997, over 150 countries are participating in the voluntary PIC procedure.
Note to journalists: The meeting will be held in the Geneva International Conference Center.
For further information, please contact
Michael Williams of UNEP in Geneva at 022-979-9242,
Natel 079-409-1528, fax 022-797-3464,
or Erwin Northoff of FAO in Rome at
0039-6-5225 3105, fax 0039-6-5225 4974,
Official documents and other information can be found on the Internet at http://irptc.unep.ch/pic/.
UNEP News Release 1997/18