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U.N. Turns to TURI and Lowell Center to Guide International Policy

Report Points to Skyrocketing Production of Chemicals

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Ken Geiser, left, front, with Rachel Massey, third from the right, worked with members of a steering committee at the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme in Geneva to develop a chemicals report that will be released at a major global environmental meeting in June.

By Karen Angelo

The production and use of chemicals in developing countries is skyrocketing, resulting in significant harm to human health, especially for children living in poverty, says a new report compiled by staff and faculty of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.

The Global Chemicals Outlook report, commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will be a major source of reference at an international meeting, the RIO +20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. The June conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will attract more than 200 heads of state and government officials who will set goals for worldwide sustainable development.

Rachel Massey of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) and Prof. Ken Geiser of the Work Environment Department and co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, played leading roles in the international process that led to this report. Geiser served as facilitator for the steering committee meetings that included industry experts, academics and government officials from 10 countries as well as representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and other intergovernmental organizations.

“It is very empowering and refreshing working with representatives from different countries,” said Geiser. “The work that we began here at Lowell with the Toxics Use Reduction Act 20 years ago will now have international presence. We believe that the same strategies of finding safer alternatives and reducing toxics at the source rather than dealing with clean-up and health effects can be applied worldwide to foster economic growth while protecting health and well-being.”

Massey worked with UNEP to select and recruit members of the steering committee and develop a consensus on information to be covered in the report.

“There is an urgent need to create policy structures that support the sound management of chemicals in developing countries,” says Massey. “A wide variety of toxic chemicals – including toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium – are being used in developing countries with little or no regulation to protect human health and the environment.”

Worldwide Trends

The Global Chemicals Outlook report provides a detailed look at trends in the production and use of toxic chemicals in developing countries. Statistics include:

  • Chemical production grew at an average rate of 24 percent in China and 14 percent in India between 2000 and 2010.
  • China’s consumption of lead increased by an average of 20 percent per year between 1999 and 2009.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that 98 percent of adults and 99 percent of children currently affected by exposure to lead live in developing countries and countries in economic transition.

Students, Staff and Faculty Contributed to the Report

Massey worked with Molly Jacobs of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production to research trends in the global chemicals industry and the health and environmental consequences. Geiser worked with Sally Edwards, also of the Lowell Center, to research policy options for sound management of chemicals globally. Adjunct Professor Dick Clapp served on the steering committee and Jan Hutchins of TURI conducted background research. Two UMass Lowell graduate students, Alexander Gyebi and Jason Gresci, were involved in the research as well.

Massey and Geiser presented the draft reports at the final meeting of the steering committee in Geneva, Switzerland, in December.


Related to the UNEP project, Geiser and Massey co-authored the article "How Developing Nations Can Protect Children from Hazardous Chemical Exposures while Sustaining Economic Growth" for the December issue of Health Affairs journal. Download the article for free from the TURI website. Health Affairs is health policymakers’ most frequently read journal, consulted by 55 percent of staff members on U.S. Congressional committees of jurisdiction in health.