By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - Increasing misuse of chemicals is causing health and environmental damage especially in emerging economies and governments must do more to carry out a promised clean-up by 2020, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.
Production and use of chemicals - from plastics to pesticides - is shifting to developing nations where safeguards are often weaker, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said. Unsafe disposal and recycling adds to risks, it said.
Poisonings from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to more than a million deaths every year, UNEP said in a statement of its Global Chemicals Outlook.
"The gains that chemicals can provide must not come at the expense of human health and the environment," Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, said of its first assessment of chemicals.
The report said chemicals are ubiquitous in modern products, from food to mobile phones, and meant millions of people live "richer, more productive and more comfortable lives".
Scientists have only assessed the risks of using a fraction of an estimated 140,000 chemicals marketed worldwide, in everything from plastics to pesticides, UNEP said.
Governments promised in 2002, and reaffirmed the promise at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June, to produce and use chemicals by 2020 "in ways that minimize significant adverse effects on the environment and human health."
Progress in improving safeguards and finding better production methods so far have been "slow" and results "are too often insufficient", UNEP said. It listed firms such as Bayer, Boots or BASF as having ways to avoid damaging chemicals.
"The world is not on target" for the 2020 goal, Mounkaila Goumandakoye, a director of the UNEP regional office for Africa, told a news conference in Nairobi. Stockpiles of dangerous, obsolete pesticides in Africa totaled 50,000 tonnes, he said.
Chemicals including ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, styrene and formaldehyde are among frequent air pollutants. Chemicals flowing into waters include nitric acid, manganese, methanol, and formaldehyde.
The report said that the value of global chemicals output surged from $171 billion in 1970 to $4.12 trillion by 2010, but often without adequate environmental protection.
And the share produced by rich nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) fell from 77 percent to 63 percent from 2000 to 2009, while big developing nations such as China and India took on a rising share.
Risks "are compounded by the steady shift in the production, use and disposal of chemical products from developed countries to emerging and developing economies, where safeguards and regulations are often weaker," UNEP said.
Better management of chemicals could help a shift to greener economy that would safeguard the environment and help growth.
"Sound chemicals management is as valid an area as education, transport, infrastructure, direct health care services and other essential public services," said Maria Neira, director for public health and the environment at the World Health Organization.
The phase-out of lead in gasoline in recent decades, for instance, provided global benefits worth an estimated $2.45 trillion a year, or 4 percent of world gross domestic product, UNEP said. Lead has been shown to cause brain damage.
And the "the accumulated cost of illness and injury linked to pesticides in small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa could reach $90 billion" from 2005 to 2020, it said.
The study also said rich nations are failing to recycle electronic waste, such as from old computers or television sets.
"Estimates suggest that up to 75 per cent of the e-waste generated in Europe and approximately 80 per cent of the e-waste generated in the United States goes unaccounted for," it said.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)