Following the first joint annual message on water stress in 1997, the EEA and UNEP are pleased to publish a statement on another subject of prime concern: Chemicals in the Environment. As "watchers" of Europe’s Environment, these statements aim to raise public and political awareness on critical or emerging issues to facilitate preventative action by governments and others.

This year’s annual message comes to you at a time when international activity in chemicals and the environment is moving into higher gear. The European Commission has begun a review of EU policies on chemicals, and governments have recently agreed the text of the socalled "prior informed consent" or PIC Convention, regulating international trade in hazardous chemicals. PIC will establish an international alert list and help developing countries obtain the information they need to protect their citizens and their environment. By preventing unwanted imports of dangerous chemicals, this convention will provide a first line of defence against future tragedies.

Meanwhile, rapid progress is also being made in reducing releases and emissions of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. We now understand that in addition to the deaths and acute effects caused by direct and immediate contact, POPs – which include some of the most toxic chemicals ever made – can cause cancer, allergies, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, diseases of the immune system, reproductive disorders, interference with normal infant and child development, as well as damage to wildlife.

European countries have adopted an agreement on POPs under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution at the fourth European conference of environment ministers in June 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark. The global community is not far behind. Talks on a worldwide POPs treaty began soon after in Montreal. These global talks are critical for Europe because POPs released in one part of the world can be transported to regions far away from their original source.

Encouraging as these efforts may be, a great deal remains to be done because many thousands of chemicals are on the market but without adequate information on their fate and impact on people and ecosystems.

As the costs of conducting toxicity testing of these chemicals and their degradation products under realistic conditions of exposure would be very large, consideration is being given to reducing progressively – but substantially – unwanted exposures to potentially hazardous chemicals that persist and accumulate in the environment: this seems to be an appropriate application of the precautionary principle to the problems of chemicals.

At the same time, more risk assessments and improved implementation of existing laws are urgently needed if an appropriate balance is to be struck between the risks and benefits of chemicals.

These different issues require the participation of civil society and increased public awareness and education. We must also provide industry with long-term scenarios that they can adjust to by developing efficient and lower-cost alternatives which will enable them to stay in business by doing sustainable business.

Clearly, solutions must be tailored to the properties and uses of each particular chemical and groups of chemicals, as well as to each country’s unique circumstances. But action must be taken quickly. Each year that passes without effective action will result in decades of additional, unintended exposure to chemicals that are likely to be harmful to human health and the environment.

Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán
Executive Director
European Environment Agency
Klaus Toepfer
Executive Director

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