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UN project addresses chemicals in products, lead in paint

Organisation - UN © bennian_1 -

UN Environment has started a project that aims to better manage chemicals in products and accelerate the global phase-out of lead in paint.

The project, named "Global best practices on emerging chemical policy issues of concern under the strategic approach to international chemicals management (Saicm)"  has been given $8.2m by the Global Environment Facility, an international funding platform. An additional $21.3m will be provided by governments and other organisations, including NGOs and international bodies. The aim of the project is to establish government policies and supply chain initiatives that address related environmental and human health concerns.

The Saicm multi-stakeholder programme will help implement these measures and initiatives in more than 70 countries over a four year period.

CiP action

To address the lifecycle of chemicals in products, the project will focus on helping governments and supply chains establish measures to track and control chemicals used in building products, electronics and toys. These are three of the four product sectors addressed in the UN's Chemicals in Products programme, which launched in 2015. The fourth is textiles.

The project identifies a lack of:

  • transparency in supply chains and the limited uptake – particularly in developing and emerging regions – of available tools to monitor and report the presence of hazardous chemicals;
  • economic and market based incentives for producers to track and manage hazardous chemicals in their products and supply chains;
  • regulatory drivers for increased transparency: "There is a lack of regulations globally requiring disclosure or phase-out of hazardous chemicals in products, apart from a few chemicals, for example POPs or heavy metals; and
  • quantitative sustainability assessment of hazardous chemicals and their alternatives, which leads to ‘regrettable substitutions’.

To address this, the project will:

  • create incentives for supply chains to act via public procurement and sustainable finance measures;
  • develop quantitative lifecycle assessment tools to compare chemical alternatives and avoid regrettable substitutions; and
  • enhance the ambition of, and compliance with, regulatory requirements on chemicals of concern.

Lead in paint

UN Environment says there is a lack of capacity in developing countries to introduce and enforce regulations to phase out lead in paint. However, even in countries with regulations, there is evidence that small paint manufacturers struggle to comply, as they have "limited technical capacity or resources to formulate lead free paint," it adds.

To tackle this, the project aims to help 40 countries regulate and establish legal limits for lead in paint. In addition, it will seek to have at least 50 SME paint manufacturers in eight countries phase out lead from their production processes.

A third aspect of the project - called Knowledge Management - will look into information sharing and stakeholder engagement. It will establish an "effective global network of EPI [emerging policy issues] experts" which will "lead to engagement of stakeholders from other sectors and agendas" and encourage the development of collaborative initiatives. It will also develop a platform to provide data and progress on the project at a regional, national and global level. Interested parties will be invited to contribute to the objectives of this aspect of the project. 

The project was discussed at a workshop in Geneva last week, where details and plans were finalised and agreed. UN Environment will present initial project results to the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in 2020.

Why CiP and lead?

Chemicals in products and lead in paint are two ‘emerging policy issues’ identified by the UN’s global voluntary chemicals programme, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm). The other EPIs are EDCs, nanotechnology, highly hazardous pesticides, hazardous electronics, pharmaceutical pollutants and perfluorinated chemicals.

The project focuses on chemicals in products and lead in paint because they "present particular environmental and health problems".

A UN document, outlining plans for the project, says that only a few chemicals in products are regulated or banned under the Stockholm and Minamata Conventions. The former is a treaty for controlling persistent organic pollutants (POPs), while the latter deals with mercury.

Hazardous chemicals, it says, are found in consumer products all over the world, resulting in exposure to workers during manufacture, consumers during use, women and children through unregulated recycling and disposal operations and to the environment via wastewater and sewage sludges.

In addition, "toxic contaminants in products can also be a barrier to a shift towards a circular economy".

The CiP part of the project focuses on supporting efforts on three of the four sectors that are addressed under the UN’s Chemical in Products Programme (CIP). It will draw on lessons learned from a similar project on textiles, the fourth CIP product sector, which received GEF funding in 2013. 

Efforts to eliminate lead exposure have been ongoing for decades. Lead is a "cumulative toxic element particularly harmful to young children and pregnant women," the document says. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has estimated that in 2015 lead exposure accounted for 494,550 deaths due to long-term effects on health.

Lead paint is a major source of childhood lead exposure, for example through contaminated dust in homes that can be inhaled or ingested. "Even relatively low levels of exposure to lead can cause serious and irreversible neurological damage, there is no known safe level of lead exposure," it adds.

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