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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Are popcorn and nappies the next WMD?

By Ibrahim Thibaw, Deputy Executive Director, UN Environment | 24 April 2016

As a young boy, I used to look at the stars and wonder about the adventures of people like Neil Armstrong. Years later, as a parent, I used to watch my children do the same and wonder about their future – would they be the ones to take holidays in the stars?

But today, when I get a precious evening with my grandson and we look up at the sky, I think of other children with lives so full of pollution they can’t even see the stars. And I wonder if my grandson will travel because of his sense of adventure or because he is forced to find safe air and water.

From 36,000 feet down in the ocean’s Mariana Trench, to 36,000 feet up in busy air traffic corridors, humans are polluting everything we need to eat, drink or breathe.

When did we slip from marveling at this amazing planet to casually destroying it? When did we become so numb to our surroundings that 13 deaths from a traffic accident can move us to tears, but up to 13 million deaths from pollution and environmental degradation can’t move us to action?

Chemicals are a big part of this pollution. We didn’t intend them to be. After all, they improve our lives in incredible ways. They provide clean water, medical care and hygiene, and they support agriculture, clean energy and job creation. In fact, they contribute to almost everything that we use and do.

But we are losing control of our own creations. We are introducing them across the planet much faster than we can assess their impact on our lives and much faster than we can get any problems back under control.

People talk about the existential risk of artificial intelligence. Yet this threat is already here with chemicals. Everyday items like pizza boxes, microwave popcorn and baby nappies are upsetting the hormonal balance of humans, wildlife and our entire food chain.

The difficulty is that once these substances are out there, getting the genie back into the bottle is not so easy, and it doesn’t happen quickly.

We are just a few months away from the first meeting of the Minamata Convention, which will help control the use and spread of mercury. But it is already 60 years since the Minamata coast in Japan became synonymous with mercury poisoning.

Since then, scientists have found mercury in the once pristine waters of the Arctic. It is seeping into our soil, water and air from the millions of tonnes of electronic waste dumped illegally each year.

And mercury is just one of more than 130,000 chemicals on the market. But we only properly assess, control or label a fraction of them.

We can’t keep dealing with chemicals one at a time and only when we have enough irrefutable scientific data to convince governments, producers, traders, doctors, lawmakers and the general public.

By then, too much damage has already been done. Instead, we have a moral responsibility to act when there is a doubt, not when victims emerge, laws change and loopholes close.

Over the next two weeks, representatives from more 180 countries are meeting in Geneva to to agree how to better manage chemicals and waste using the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions.

Advancing these multilateral agreements is vital. But we also need to trigger a rethink in our lifecycle approach to chemicals and the way we adapt to new findings.

We need to work with the private sector to develop better controls, quicker responses and innovative alternatives.

We need to work with schools and universities to look at how we educate the young people who will develop the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and consumer products of the future.

We need to work with the general public to leverage household purchasing power and decision making.

This is the 30th Anniversary year of the Montreal Protocol – the most successful international environment agreement to date. It turned the tide on ozone-depleting chemicals, showing the power of concerted action taken even before hard, scientific evidence emerged.

What’s good for the planet can also be good for business. For example, the growing consumer backlash against the 13 million tonnes of plastic flowing into our oceans every year is creating a huge market for alternatives.

We also see an explosion in demand for renewable energy, mobile technology and electric transport – and a concomitant demand for ecologically friendly batteries and servicing.

The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions do not cover every pollutant on the planet, but they cover some of the worst and provide an opportunity to phase these out as a first step.

These Conventions also give us a chance to reset the way we approach chemicals and waste and influence the success of other agreements designed to safeguard our planet, including the Kigali Amendment on greenhouse gasses, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals.

No single nation can control pollution from chemicals and waste, so at last year’s UN Environment Assembly, nearly 200 countries asked us to explore how we should deal with them. This December, the Assembly will be a summit on pollution, putting the impact of chemicals and waste at the heart of decision making.

For most people, chemicals are not yet on the radar, but they are in almost everything they eat, drink and breathe. They will decide if their kids grow up healthy or sick; whether they reach for the stars or just read about them online.

If we have the power to block the heavens from our children and to poison the most remote corners of the ocean, surely we also have the power to change course.


Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw is the Deputy Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.

He has served in this position since his appointment by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in August 2013. Mr. Thiaw plays a critical role in providing leadership and shaping the strategic vision and direction of the organization.  He provides direct oversight to the development of the programme of work and plays a critical role in the implementation of UNEP’s mandate and management of the organization, as well as advancing the on-going internal performance and reform agenda. Mr. Thiaw also contributes in catalyzing UNEP’s political engagement with governments and the relationship with UNEP’s Governing Bodies, including the United Nations Environmental Assembly.

Prior to his appointment as Deputy Executive Director, Mr. Thiaw served as the Director of UNEP’s Division of Environmental Policy Implementation (DEPI). As Director for DEPI, Mr. Thiaw was responsible for conceptualizing and managing UNEP’s activities in two of its core thematic areas of focus – ecosystem management; and conflicts and disasters. He also managed the adaptation component of UNEP’s climate change sub-theme.

Before joining UNEP in 2007, Mr. Thiaw worked as the IUCN Regional Director for West Africa and later as the Acting Director-General of IUCN. With 33 years of substantive experience in the fields of sustainable development, environmental governance and natural resource management at the national, regional and international levels, Mr. Thiaw has been successful in the development and implementation of large scale, global environmental programmes and projects and in addressing complex management and organisational challenges.

Mr. Thiaw holds an advanced degree in Forestry and Forest product techniques.

Any opinions Expressed in "Executive Perspectives" are those of external parties and not those of Thomson Reuters.

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