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Third World Health Organisation Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

22 Jun 1999 - Statement by Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, UNEP, at the Third World Health Organisation Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health.

Mr President, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

* May I say how pleased and honoured I am to be sitting here with Dr. Brundtland, the promoter of sustainable development, in her new position as the world leader of health.

* Exactly ten years ago, as the German Minister of the Environment, I had the pleasure of opening the first environment and health conference in Frankfurt. This conference opened a new chapter in the partnership of the environment and health sectors. At the second conference in Helsinki, in 1994, I had the honor of addressing the conference not only as Chairman of the first conference, but also as the President of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

* I would like to share seven basic messages with this conference. Most of them have significance both - globally as well as to Europe.

* First, the continuing relevance of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle has provided important policy guidance on matters relating to both the environment and health. The precautionary principle states that "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically".

The application of the precautionary principle has determined the manner in which corrective environmental actions are being taken at the national, regional and global levels. It shows up in our concern over global warming, ozone depletion, chemicals, toxic waste, extinction of biodiversity, desertification and contaminated water. And most significantly it is manifested in WHO's definition of health as being "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity".

* A healthy population and a healthy environment are a social good and an economic good. We cannot think of a healthy population without a healthy environment and ecosystems.

* The application of the precautionary principle is even more relevant as the process of globalization with its yet-to- be-ascertained impacts on global health and environment gets underway. Its relevance is also magnified in the context of natural and man-made disasters: From the Indonesian forest fires, the effects of El Nino in Africa, the floods in China and Bangladesh, the consequences of hurricane Mitch in Latin America and the human and environmental impacts of the conflict in the Balkans.

Accompanying these impacts are repercussions that touch every man, woman and child in both industrialized and developing nations. We have lost the luxury of dealing with environmental and health problems leisurely or in isolation.

*If the precautionary principle is followed, then the concept of sustainable development would have two balancing components: environmental protection and recognition of the basic and human health needs of present and future generations.

Sustainable development would involve ecological practices that enable meeting the needs of future generations. And, it would result in a change in production and consumption patterns.

* The second point that I would like to emphasize is the interlinkage between poverty, environment and health. We know that income is a major determinant of a person's health. But, every day 67,000 people join the already numerous ranks of the world's poor. That means that over the next 12 months nearly 25 million additional individuals - women, men and children - will lead a life marked by hunger, disease, substandard living conditions, and few opportunities for a better life. Most of those who will be ensnared in this poverty trap live in the developing world, and seven out of every ten will be women.

* But we also know that economic growth is the sine qua non for overcoming poverty. So we have no alternative but to develop and implement new cleaner technologies in production. We must develop industrial processes that involve life-cycle analysis and cleaner production methods. And connected with these we will have to further enhance our assessment capabilities. This will enable us to identify long-range trends such as population growth, poverty resource use and environmental change. An enhanced assessment capacity will enable us to make the understanding of the long-range, multiple impacts of such trends an integral part of our environmental and health policy making process.

* My third message relates to the impact of chemicals on human health. The chemical industry makes not merely things, but a way of life. Today, the pace and growth of the chemical industry is astonishing. There are some 70,000 chemicals in the market. And, 1,500 new ones are being introduced every year. Some of these chemicals have been implicated in various disorders and diseases. These include cancer, reproductive disorders and failures, birth defects, neurobehavioral disorders and impaired immune functions. A new breed of chemicals - "endocrine disruptors" has been added to this growing list.

* Undoubtedly, chemical expertise over the last century has contributed to a better life for humankind. The knowledge now exists, together with a heightened awareness of the possible pitfalls, to reduce and eliminate, the likelihood of future unwelcome surprises.

* This will entail clear screening of the chemicals before they enter the market. And most importantly, it will entail the full implementation of Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 - the framework on which the international chemicals agenda is built. In this regard, UNEP is working closely with the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety to further the chemical agenda. We have a consensus decision of UNEP Governing Council to proceed in this task.

* Even if we develop our information capacity on the negative consequences of these chemicals, action to prevent anticipated consequences of those trends will require political will. It will require quick and targeted action at the global level.

* The example of the Montreal Protocol is particularly instructive. Were there no restrictions mandated by the Montreal Protocol on the use of ozone depleting substances, we would have 1.5 million additional cases of skin cancer by the year 2100 in the United states and 550,000 in North-west Europe alone. It is important to recognize that the Montreal Protocol was the first ever global treaty in which countries agreed to impose significant costs on their economies, in face of scientific uncertainty, to protect the global atmosphere. The lessons of this Protocol will stand us in good stead as we come to a global agreement on the "dirty dozen" - Persistent Organic Pollutants. A similar agreement will be needed in the future on persistent inorganic pollutants as well.

* My fourth message is regarding the risk to human health posed by the rising volume of solid waste. The current controversial issue of dioxin contamination is a specific example. A sustainable waste management plan must be founded on the principle of reduction of waste at source. This can be accomplished through the adoption of cleaner production methods and a focus on life cycle approach. In such a system, the consumption of energy and materials will be optimized, waste generation minimized and the effluents of one process will serve as the raw material for another process.

* My fifth message relates to the impacts of climate change on health. Warmer temperatures will increase the chances of heat waves and intensify air quality problems such as smog. They will also lead to an increase in allergic disorders. Diseases that thrive in warmer climates, such as dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis and cholera are likely to spread due to the expansion of the range of disease-carrying organisms. We have to fight against climate change. But to do so, we must develop further studies and adaptation strategies to cope with the impacts of climate change on health,

* I now turn to my sixth message. And this is the risk posed to human health by air pollution. The huge global trends towards urbanization are worsening this health risk. Asthma is rising dramatically throughout the developed countries. More than 100 million people in Europe and North America are still exposed to unsafe air. Since transportation is a vital component of the urbanization process, I am pleased with the new UNEP/WHO initiative aimed at building capacities in transport, environmental and health policy linkages in selected large cities of the world.

* My seventh message relates to the qualitative and quantitative aspects of drinking water. Every day 25,000 people die as a result of poor water quality. 3.8 million children die each year from preventable water borne diseases. To ensure acceptable water quality for human consumption and ecosystem survival, the highest priority should go to programmes that reduce the generation of solid, liquid and airborne wastes. In addition, there must be adequate containment and treatment of the remaining wastes from these sources that cannot be eliminated. And priority is to conserve water and avoid needless waste, in part by treating water as a valuable commodity and pricing it to reflect the real costs of supply.

* My final message relates to the health risks associated with biotechnology. Biotechnology is an important tool for fighting hunger. The new techniques of biotechnology will be important to meet the world's continuing need for increased and sustainable food production. But we must recognize that safety is the paramount concern with any new technology or production process. Clearly, there is a need to define the pathway for the commercialization of genetically modified products as they move from the laboratory to the field, and, finally to the marketplace. It must be a system that is designed to carefully evaluate products for risks to human, animal and plant health, and for risks to environmental safety. So there is an urgent need for a protocol on biosafety. I need not remind the audience that this protocol is grounded on the precautionary principles articulated by the Rio Declaration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

* UNEP looks forward to continued and enhanced cooperation with WHO. UNEP has been closely associated to the preparations for this Conference, and intends to be fully involved in its follow-up in support of the processes initiated in this forum.

* I wish you all the best for your deliberations.

Tuesday 22 Jun 1999
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