We need a global science panel on chemicals and waste

Chemical pollution is a global threat that demands for global action, says Zhanyun Wang. An interface body similar to the IPCC could help bridge the gap between science and policy.

Chemicals are at the heart of our modern world. But the way the world deals with chemicals is highly inadequate. Over the last decades, the number and diversity of chemicals produced and traded have increased drastically, reaching several hundred thousands. More than a third of these substances lacks proper descriptions, and at least 3 percent of all chemicals have concerning hazardous properties.

Among the “known” chemicals harmful to humans and the environment are toxic fluorine compounds called PFAS that keep our rain jackets waterproof but can cause cancer, pesticides that clear farmland of weeds and pests but contribute to large-​scale insect decline, and metals from our waste digital devices and electric car batteries that pollute e-​waste workers and nearby environments. Exposure to lead, for example, still causes nearly 1 million premature deaths around the world every year.

Progress has been made, but not enough

Many developed countries have established regulatory frameworks to address the problem of toxic substances, but these frameworks need to be complemented by international efforts.

This is particularly critical for addressing issues that transcend borders, such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and plastic wastes. For example, Switzerland imports many products from all over the world; to ensure their safety, joint international action throughout the global supply chains is required.

Zhanyun Wang

However, for a large fraction of chemicals in use, substantial knowledge gaps hinder their sound management. Furthermore, for those chemicals that are known as problematic or where there is emerging evidence of concern, control measures are often limited. Experience shows that it usually takes long for the international community to react accordingly.

Only recently and after decades of wide use, the Swiss government has nominated UV-​328, a common chemical additive to protect the plastics from UV light, for listing under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants for a global elimination.3

Synthetic chemical products are all over the planet: Plastic waste along with various problematic substances, for example, will increase substantially in the coming years. (Image: Bombaert / iStock) 

Strenghtening global governance

There are signs of a much-​needed political commitment: Next week the environment ministers around the world will meet online to set the course for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2022–2025.4 Action on chemical pollution based on stronger links between the scientific community and policymakers shall become a key element of UNEP’s forthcoming work, next to climate change and biodiversity loss.

As researchers in environmental chemistry, we can only support this agenda. In a perspective in Science, together with colleagues from different disciplines and regions, we reviewed the current landscape of international science-​policy interface on chemicals and waste – a cornerstone for informed policymaking.5 We found a highly fragmented interface that is limited in scope and impacts.

More specifically, we identified four significant shortcomings in the interaction between science and policy that hamper an effective management of chemicals and waste. In particular, a lack of substance coverage, horizon scanning and early warning mechanisms, combined with missing mutual communication and limited opportunities for scientific engagement, limit the international community’s ability to identify issues for concerted action.

This stands in sharp contrast to the rapid increase and diversification of chemicals in use and waste, as well as the rapid generation of scientific findings on negative side effects.

Bridging the gap

We are convinced that an intergovernmental science-​policy body for chemicals and waste could help tackle the global threat of chemical pollution, 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 biodiversity loss.

A core function of this body would be to foster broader bi-​directional exchange of information, providing authoritative scientific assessements for policymakers and informing scientists about policy-​relevant questions. Also, a key characteristic must be the wide involvement of diverse natural and social scientists, including legal experts and economists. This could in turn help to raise overall awareness of and increase participation by the scientific community in the science-​policy interface.

A call for international collaboration

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We call on governments and stakeholders around the world to take this necessary step towards a global sound management of chemicals and waste. We also encourage universities and other academic institutions to continuously support research and teaching on the various aspects of chemical pollution.6 This is crucial not only for new knowledge, but also for future generations of scientists, policymakers and entrepreuners capable to address this global threat.  

Zhanyun Wang co-​authored this post with Martin Scheringer.