In a paper published today in Science, the group explains how limited and fragmented science-policy interactions on chemicals and waste have contributed to widespread health and environmental harm.
“We need international cooperation to address issues that transcend borders, such as the harms of heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and plastic wastes,” said lead author Dr. Zhanyun Wang, a Senior Scientist at the ETH Zürich in Switzerland. “This is critical for developed and developing countries where developing countries are the world’s dumping grounds for toxics.”
Exposure to a small fraction of the over 100,000 chemicals in use has been estimated to have contributed to over 1.3 million premature deaths in 2017. Harmful chemicals include the PFAS that make our rain jackets waterproof but can cause cancer; pesticides that keep farmland clear of weeds and pests but contribute to widespread insect decline; and metals from the disposal of our used electronic devices and electric car batteries that pollute e-waste workers, their families and environment. Although such pollution is global, international decision makers do not have a way to stay informed regarding important new scientific findings, which limits their ability to address these threats in a timely fashion.
“Communication between science and decision makers is never easy and straightforward,” says Dr. Martin Scheringer, a co-author of the paper and professor at MU. “Just inviting selected scientists to meetings of decision makers is not sufficient. Both sides need to better understand the thinking and the language of the other side and there needs to be a platform where they can meet and talk in a more targeted, comprehensive and long-term fashion.”
With the increasing amount and variety of chemicals in use, harm from chemicals will continue to grow. Global chemical sales were over US$5.6 trillion in 2017 and are projected to almost double by 2030. Even more concerning trends are projected for waste generation—the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean in 2025 is expected to be 10 times higher than in 2010.
The authors urge that a global intergovernmental science-policy body for chemicals and waste is necessary to tackle these problems. This body would be an analogous to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for climate change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) for loss of biodiversity. Such a panel would keep chemicals in use under review throughout their life cycles. It would also identify policy-relevant research needs and speed action to protect human and environmental health.
Dr. Wang added, “A new science-policy body will provide a scientific basis for international and national action on chemicals and waste by conducting authoritative scientific assessments, identifying emerging concerns, and connecting policy makers and scientists. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and we hope the governments around the world will take this critical step toward a pollution-free planet.”
Jana Klánová, the director of the RECETOX research center considers the proposed set-up as necessary and effective form of cooperation. “We very much welcome and support this initiative. RECETOX, through the National Centre for Toxic Compounds and the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre for Capacity Building and the Transfer of Technology, has for a long time contributed to development of policies at the local, national and international levels. We provide data, capacities and expertise and through our experts also represent the Czech Republic at the European and international level. The cooperation with prof. Martin Scheringer allows us to work together to improve the management of chemicals in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. "