An OECD review of Australia’s environmental performance has highlighted the country’s backlog of 25,000 unassessed substances and potential gaps in its chemical management system. It recommends that the government ensures the substances are assessed in a "reasonable time frame".
The report says that 61% of industrial chemicals on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances (AICS) – many of which gained mass approval in the 1990s – have not been assessed in the light of new scientific advances and that they are "data-poor substances with unknown toxicity".
The report acknowledges that, under the Inventory Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritisation (IMAP) framework for assessment, 8,500 substances were screened between 2012 and 2018. However, it expresses concern that there is no timetable under IMAP to assess the remaining substances. The review suggests that funding mechanisms be put in place to ensure assessments can be done according to a clear timetable.
Furthermore, the OECD says there are gaps in the coverage of hazard endpoints included in the data requirements under IMAP. Reproductive and developmental toxicity and carcinogenicity studies are not required in the minimum dataset. This means, for example, that the potential effects of endocrine disruptors are not "investigated systematically".
Unassessed substances in imported products
The review also expresses concern at the lack of regulation in Australia of the unintentional release of unassessed substances from products imported into the country.
According to the review, substances in products are only regulated by Nicnas if they are expected to be released during use. But products containing chemicals that are not intended for release – and are therefore not regulated – may leach from articles or enter waste streams, which "poses a potential threat" to health and the environment, the review says.
As a result, the review recommends that the authorities ensure there is "no gap in chemical regulation for chemical constituents of imported articles" and that they have access to "adequate information" about industrial chemicals introduced into the country.
However, the OECD review is concerned that there are no clear criteria set by the Australian government for judging the success or otherwise of the reforms.
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