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Poverty Times #3

Preventing chemical disasters

by Mara Caboara

The chemical industry has been at the forefront of disaster prevention. Industrial disasters on the scale of Seveso and Bhopal prompted chemical fi rms to rethink their response to accidents, and, more generally, how they do business.

In 1987 the global chemical industry launched a voluntary initiative, Responsible Care, committing chemical companies to achieve continuous improvements in environmental, health and safety performance beyond levels required by local and international regulations. A fundamental element of Responsible Care is open communication with governments and international and local organisations, including disaster prevention and emergency response.

Chemical companies are working to prevent chemical accidents and reduce their impact. Global and regional networks are a crucial part of this strategy. In Europe the International Chemical Environment (ICE) network of emergency professionals provides information, practical help and equipment to the competent emergency authorities to cope with chemical incidents.

In the United States the Chemical Transportation Emergency Centre (CHEMTREC) operates a publicservice hotline for fi re fi ghters, law enforcement, and other emergency agencies, providing data and assistance for incidents involving chemicals and hazardous materials.

The chemical industry, in countries such as Japan, Mexico, Canada, China and Thailand, has also set up emergency networks. Every major region and country has developed and adapted its own system, following ICE and CHEMTREC guidelines.

Chemical companies are complementing emergency networks with their own schemes and systems. For example, most global chemical companies provide their deliveries with safety data sheets, emergency procedures and emergency labels, usually under the supervision of national technical agencies.

Companies may also offer direct assistance and support to disaster victims, by funding recovery activities, helping implement conservation and emergencypreparedness plans, and offering medical care to victims and their families.

These are only a few examples of disaster prevention and management practices in the chemical sector, over and above concerted action by chemical industry networks. Our experience at association and company-level has led us to formulate our own recommendations on how best to use international resources in disaster prevention and remediation, and how public-private partnerships may reduce impacts.

We must create a portfolio of disaster reduction actions, compiling best practice and lessons learned from previous disasters, and a catalogue of technologies for disaster reduction. The chemical industry should share well-developed codes, translated into several languages and adapted to the different environments in which we operate.

We should also do more to integrate environmental emergency preparedness and response activities into strategies and sustainable development programmes. In particular we must identify specifi c activities, to implement relevant provisions of the 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and conform more closely with the Millennium declaration and its goals.

Discussion of emergency prevention, preparedness and response issues involving the competent authorities, private sector and general public must develop. We should assess the effectiveness of existing public-private partnerships. Would the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, for instance, be an appropriate venue to create new partnerships, and if so, how should partnerships differ from existing ones?

Lastly we must develop and enhance early-warning systems, still the most critical aspect of risk reduction. We need to create suitable technical instruments, constantly monitored and improved by networks of professionals. The lack of suitable early-warning systems is the key obstacle to prevention, allowing accidents to develop into fully-fl edged disasters.

Mara Caboara is the manager of the International Council of Chemical Associations.