U.N. Chemicals Agreement Reached Despite U.S. and European Differences

Environmental officials from 150 countries approved a broad agreement Tuesday that sets international standards for the production of chemicals.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Environmental officials from 150 countries approved a broad agreement Tuesday that sets international standards for the production of chemicals, which U.N. officials say is growing by some 1,500 new compounds a year with little oversight.

The voluntary pact, known as the Dubai declaration, won approval despite deep differences between U.S. and European Union-led camps that threatened to scuttle the talks altogether, negotiators said.

The agreement marks the first attempt to set worldwide guidelines on developing, handling and labeling of chemicals, an industry that is shifting from wealthy to developing countries.

"This is extremely important for health and the environment," said Klaus Toepfer, director of the U.N. Environment Program, which sponsored the talks.

A new United Nations secretariat will be created in Geneva to oversee implementation of the pact's 280 recommendations, which are not legally binding on governments or companies.

Governments and organizations attending the U.N.-sponsored environmental conference backed the plan with pledges of US$10 million in startup funds, Toepfer said.

Critics among European countries and environmental groups said the agreement, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, has been rendered largely ineffective by the United States, Australia, Japan, Korea and Canada, whose delegations cut provisions calling for strident testing and other actions that could harm the interests of chemical companies.

The World Wildlife Fund's Clifton Curtis, who took part in the negotiations, said the Dubai Declaration was "extremely disappointing, with results akin to achieving a half loaf of bread, not well baked."

The agreement would not help governments meet U.N. goals of minimizing harm to health and the environment, Curtis said.

"Unfortunately, due to the efforts of the United States and others, it's been reduced to a minimalist framework," Curtis said of the document.

The United States favors less regulation on vetting new chemicals, approving some 40,000 new chemicals for public use in the past 25 years, while Europe has released just 10,000, said Charles Auer, a toxins expert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most new chemicals are "greener" than those they replaced, Auer said.

"We have a different approach to the way we regulate chemicals in our country," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Claudia McMurray told The Associated Press. "We may not know everything now, but let's move forward anyhow. I don't think the Europeans, just because they have their own way of doing things, have the only way."

McMurray, who led the U.S. negotiating team, said she also opposed Europeans' attempts to add EU guidelines to the Dubai declaration, a measure U.S. firms feared could create trade barriers or trigger costly new tests of existing products.

"We were on the lookout for that," McMurray said. "We think there are a number of good chemicals out there that are less harmful to the environment and they ought to be able to reach the market."

Chemical industry representatives said the Dubai declaration would spread safe practices from wealthy to poor countries, while forming a starting point for better standards.

"It's more important to get started and keep talking about it," said Garrity Baker of the American Chemistry Council, a Washington-based industry group.

U.N. figures show around 1,500 new chemicals are produced each year, adding to the 80,000 the world currently produces. Over the next 15 years, volumes of chemicals produced are expected to swell by 85 percent.

Many are marketed without adequate testing for health risks or bear labels with few guidelines for safe use, particularly in the developing world, the U.N. says.

Source: Associated Press

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