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Chemicals can be a risk to life and health.
Chemicals can be a risk to life and health.
Photo: Paul Teysen.

Scientists Call for a Global Science Panel on Chemicals


​​​​​​​An international group of scientists is proposing a global intergovernmental science-policy body for informing policymakers and the public on chemicals and waste. In a paper published today in Science, the group explains how limited and fragmented science-policy interaction in current international governance of chemicals has contributed to widespread health and environmental harm.

“Chemical use in society is a double edge-sword.  On the one hand, chemicals are vital for modern society, for example as building or packaging materials but also as pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products. However, at the same time, chemicals are also a global hazard for human health and the environment. We therefore need a dedicated structure, an “interface”, between science and policy that enables the long-term systematic exchange of scientific knowledge and societal demands. This is what we outline in the paper”, says Thomas Backhaus, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg.

“We need international oversight to address issues that transcend borders, such as 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 particularly critical for low-income countries that have become dumping grounds for such waste without the needed capacity for management.”

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. The chemicals harmful to humans and the environment include those that keep our rain jackets water repellent but can cause cancer, pesticides that keep farmland clear of weeds and pests but contribute to killing bees, and metals from our waste digital devices and electric car batteries that pollute vulnerable e-waste workers and their families. Although pollution of the environment and humans is global, international policy makers do not have a global mechanism to inform themselves with up-to-date scientific evidence on a regular basis, limiting their ability to identify and address these issues in a timely manner.

With the increasing amount and variety of chemicals in use, such harms will likely multiply. Global chemical sales reached over US$5.6 trillion in 2017 and are projected to almost double by 2030. Similar trends are also true for waste generation—the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean in 2025 is projected to be 10 times higher than in 2010.

The authors argue that a global, overarching intergovernmental science-policy body for chemicals and waste would help tackle the problem. This body would be akin 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. For example, such an organization could inform policymakers on negotiations and implementation of international agreements—analogous to the IPCC and the Paris Agreement. This organization could also combat misinformation that delays action to protect human health and the environment.

Dr. Wang added, “Setting up a new science-policy body will not solve all problems with chemicals and waste. However, it will strengthen informed policymaking on managing chemicals and waste, including identifying issues with emerging scientific evidence and against vested interests. 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.”

Thomas Backhaus, Professor of Ecotoxicology, FRAM Center, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, 031-786 27 34,