Scientists Call for a Global Science Panel on Chemicals


An international group of scientists led by ETH Zurich and including researchers from RWTH is calling for a global intergovernmental science-policy body for informing policymakers and the public about reducing harm from chemical pollution. In a paper published in the current issue of Science, the researchers explain how inadequate communication between science and policy has contributed to widespread health and environmental problems.


"We need a global science panel to address cross-border environmental problems posed by chemicals such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, or waste from plastics or electronic waste,” said lead author Dr. Zhanyun Wang, senior scientist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. "Such environmental problems are especially critical for low-income countries, which have often become dumping grounds for other countries' waste without having the necessary chemical and waste management capacity in place."

Exposure to just 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. Harmful chemicals include those that make our rain jackets waterproof but can cause cancer; pesticides that keep farmland clear of weeds and pests but contribute to a loss of biodiversity; and metals from the disposal of digital devices and electric car batteries that pose risks to e-waste workers, their families, and the environment. Although such pollution is a global problem, international decision makers do not have a way to stay informed about important policy-relevant scientific findings, which limits their ability to address these threats in a timely fashion.

With the increasing amount and variety of chemicals in use, such harms will likely multiply. Global chemical sales reached over 5.6 trillion US dollars 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 address the problem. This body would be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES). Such an organization is urgently needed to inform policy makers about relevant research findings, in analogy to the IPCC, which supports the negotiations on, and implementation of, the Paris Agreement on climate change. The body could also combat misinformation that delays action to protect human health and the environment.

As Dr. Zhanyun Wang adds: “Establishing a new science-policy body will not solve all problems with chemicals and waste. However, it will promote evidence-informed policymaking on how to manage chemicals and waste and identify emerging problems early on. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and we hope that governments around the world will take this critical step towards a pollution-free planet."


Zhanyun Wang, Rolf Altenburger, Thomas Backhaus, Adrian Covaci, Miriam L. Diamond, Joan O. Grimalt, Rainer Lohmann, Andreas Schäffer, Martin Scheringer, Henrik Selin, Anna Soehl, Noriyuki Suzuki: We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste / Major gaps in current efforts limit policy responses; Science 371(6531). DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9090A