Chemicals are an integral part of everyday life and they are a major contributor to world economies. Yet many of these substances can also harm human health and the environment. Their sound management is essential to avoiding risks to human health and ecosystems and substantial costs to national economies. Home of several international organizations and multilateral environmental agreements on the topic, Geneva is a major global hub of the governance of hazardous substances.

Chemicals Around Us

An estimated 350,000 chemicals and mixtures of chemicals are registered on the global market, most of which where developed in the past few decades. Many of these substances remain unidentified as they are classified as confidential business information or are poorly described. A large numbers of these chemicals are known to threaten human health and the environment. Exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, plastic additives, radioactive waste, and other toxic substances and leakage of these substances into the environment is causing severe harm to people’s health and infringing on their human rights.

Chemicals in your home

The special briefs Invisible news give an overview of the hidden hazards in everyday objects, and also the safer alternatives which exist for safeguarding your household, your health, and the environment. These papers were jointly produced by the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS), the Minamata Convention, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Chemicals and Health Branch ahead of the 4th UN Environment Assembly.



Most of the daily products we use contain chemicals which serve to achieve a wide variety of properties. Cosmetics, toys, clothes, electronic appliances and home goods, are only a few areas where chemicals of concern have been found in everyday products. Chemical additives in plastic products have also appeared as an important point in the debate around plastic pollution and its impacts on people and nature.

Human Rights and Toxic Substances

Though integral to almost all sectors of society, the lack of environmentally sound management of chemicals and waste can have long-lasting negative impacts on human health, society, and on the environment. Such negative impacts inhibit people’s enjoyment to several human rights, including the right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Stakeholders, particularly States and businesses, must ensure that this right is upheld when conducting activities and operations on the ground.

As the main international hub on human rights, Geneva plays a crucial role in upholding human rights in tackling hazardous substances.

Impact on groups in vulnerable situations

While exposure to toxic hazards of chemicals and waste can pose a risk to all, it is also known to affect people differently. Exposure to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances often affects rightsholders in already vulnerable situations, among them people living in poverty, indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, and minorities. Women and children are also among the most exposed to toxic chemicals. Thus, human rights-based and gender-sensitive approaches are highly relevant to sound chemicals management.

Chemicals in Plastic

As global attention toward the impacts of plastic pollution is growing, the presence and impacts of the chemical additives contained in plastic has also been received increasing scrutiny. While most of these chemical components remain unknown or understudied, those for which scientific information is available have often been found to be toxic. In particular, a growing body of evidence points to the health risks posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) added to plastics. 

In the context of the 2023 Meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, delegates advanced works on chemicals in plastics. The Stockholm Convention eliminated the production and use of two chemicals (with limited exemptions): UV-328, a UV filter used in plastics and Dechlorane Plus, a flame retardant.

Issues of Concern

In 2020, the UN Environment Programme published an assessment report on the issues of concern, which reviews the latest scientific evidence on the health and environmental effects of these key challenges. This report aims to inform and support decision making at UNEA and other international forums working towards sound chemicals and waste management. The issues of concern were identified by the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), and are as follow:

  1. Chemicals in products
  2. Endocrine disrupting chemicals
  3. Environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants
  4. Hazardous substances in the life cycle of electrical and electronic products
  5. Highly hazardous pesticides
  6. Lead in paint
  7. Nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials (nanomaterials)
  8. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

The resumed session of UNEA 5, in February 2022, recognized the need to take further action to reduce or eliminate the risks associated with the chemicals and waste issues discussed in the report. UNEP was requested through resolution 5/7 to seek views from Member States and other stakeholders on priorities for further work, building on existing measures and initiatives, and on potential further international action on the issues discussed in the Assessment Report on Issues of Concern. The resolution also requests the preparation of a summary analysis, taking into account the views received. In response to this request, UNEP conducted a Consultation on priorities for further work and potential further international action on Issues of concern in July 2023.

International Collaboration for a Toxic-free Planet

Providing a non-toxic environment for all has been a core priority of environmental governance since its foundations. The first Principles of both the 1972 Stockholm and 1992 Rio Declarations focus on the human right to a safe and clean environment. The Stockholm Declaration describes “the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality…”, while the Rio Declaration states that humans “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.  The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals reiterated the importance of taking action to prevent and reduce pollution in order to protect human health and the environment.

Over the past decades, multilateral cooperation on the issue of chemicals has been increasing, notably through the adoption of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) on the matter. Many relevant organizations in this regard are based in Geneva (see section below).

Global Framework on Chemicals: For a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste

The Global Framework on Chemicals for a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste (advance version), and a High-Level Declaration (Bonn Declaration) that provides political impetus to drive the deal’s implementation, were adopted as the closing plenary of the Fifth Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) that took place from 25 to 29 September 2023 in Bonn, Germany.

The framework is based on 28 targets that aim to improve the sound management of chemicals and waste. Governments have committed to creating, by 2030, the regulatory environment to reduce chemical pollution and implement policies to promote safer alternatives. Industry has committed to managing chemicals in a way that reduces chemical pollution and adverse impacts by 2030. The framework calls for, by 2035, a phase-out of highly hazardous pesticides in agriculture where the risks have not been managed and safer alternatives are available. There is a target on strengthening links between the new instrument and the climate, biodiversity, human rights and health agendas.

Crucially, an integrated approach to financing was agreed, with private-sector financing lining up with the targets of the agreement. A dedicated trust fund will be set up and managed by the UN Environment Programme. Into this fund, governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and foundations can add to an initial EUR 20 million pledged by Germany.

Further resources and news on the GFC:

Developing a Global Science-Policy Panel on Chemicals, Waste and Pollution Prevention

At the resumed session of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), delegates adopted a resolution on the establishment of a science policy panel to support action on chemicals, waste and pollution (UNEP/EA.5/Res.8). An ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG), mandated to prepare proposals for the Science-Policy Panel to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution (SPP-CWP), began its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing it by the end of 2024.

The establishment of a science-policy panel can help strengthen the scientific basis of policies related to chemicals and waste management and contribute to more effective and sustainable approaches to preventing pollution and protecting human health and the environment.

The panel can provide scientific expertise and guidance to policymakers on the identification, assessment, and management of hazardous chemicals and waste, as well as on the development of strategies to prevent pollution. It can also help policymakers identify and prioritize areas for research and development, and facilitate the translation of scientific findings into policy recommendations. This can help ensure that policies related to chemicals and waste management are based on sound science and take into account the diverse perspectives and interests of stakeholders.

Such a panel can also support countries in their efforts to take action, including to implement multilateral environmental agreements and other relevant international instruments, promote the sound management of chemicals and waste, and address pollution by providing policy-relevant scientific advice on issues. It can also further support relevant multilateral agreements, other international instruments and intergovernmental bodies, the private sector and other relevant stakeholders in their work.

Road to OEWG 2

The first and second parts of the first session of the ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG) on a science-policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution took place respectively on 6 October 2022 in Nairobi in a hybrid format (OEWG-1.1) and from 30 January to 3 February 2023 in Bangkok (OEWG-1.2).  In preparation for the second session (OEWG 2), the OEWG Secretariat and Geneva Environment Network co-organized the Road to OEWG 2 | Science-Policy Panel to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution webinar and event series, aiming to build bridges between and among stakeholders, and promote collaboration and knowledge sharing in preparation for OEWG 2 in December 2023.

Role of Geneva

Geneva is a global hub for the governance of hazardous substances, and thus is actively working to reduce the environmental and health risks from chemicals.

Organizations are listed by alphabetical order.

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions | BRS Conventions

The BRS Conventions promote the sound management of chemicals and waste to prevent and minimize significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. They address respectively transboundary movements and management of hazardous wastes (Basel), persistent organic pollutants (Stockholm) and international trade of certain hazardous chemicals (Rotterdam).

Center for International Environmental Law | CIEL

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) works to achieve a toxic-free future through our work negotiating new international treaties; changing public policy and private practices; advocating for precaution and increased attention on new forms of chemicals; and, along the way, building strong and diverse coalitions.

Global Alliance on Health and Pollution | GAHP

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) is a collaborative body made up of more than 60 members and dozens of observers that advocates for resources and solutions to pollution problems.

International Labour Organization | ILO

ILO aims to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards, including in the area of chemical exposure and health risks in the workplace.

Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals | IOMC

IOMC is a cooperative agreement among FAO, ILO, UNDP, UNEP, UNIDO, UNITAR, WHO, World Bank and OECD. Its objective is to strengthen international cooperation in the field of chemicals and to increase the effectiveness of the organisations’ international chemicals programmes.

International Trade Union Confederation Geneva Office | ITUC

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) advocates for the protection of workers from the exposure to chemicals and toxic substances and for the recognition of health and safety at work as a fundamental right.

Minamata Convention on Mercury

The Minamata Convention on Mercury regulates anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds, with the aim of protecting human health and the environment.

Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management | SAICM

SAICM is a global policy framework hosted by UNEP to foster the sound management of chemicals.

UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction | UNDRR

UNDRR alongside the International Science Council has published the Sendai Hazard Definition and Classification Review Technical Report that provides a common set of hazard definitions for monitoring and reviewing implementation which calls for “a data revolution, rigorous accountability mechanisms and renewed global partnerships”. The list includes the hazards that come from chemicals.

UN Environment Management Group | UN EMG

The UN EMG is a system-wide coordination body on environment and human settlements. It identifies issues on the international environmental agenda that warrant cooperation and finds ways of engaging its collective capacity in coherent management responses to those issues.

In support of the global Implementation Plan “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet” welcomed at the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly, the EMG has established a consultative process to prepare a UN system common approach on pollution to provide a framework that can guide and mobilize UN entities in their work to ensure pollution is prevented and reduced to levels that are not harmful to people and the planet, including through the sound management of chemicals and waste.

UN Environment Programme Chemicals and Health Branch

The Chemicals and Health Branch of UNEP works closely with governments, industry, and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste.

UN Institute for Training and Research | UNITAR

UNITAR Chemicals and Waste Management Programme supports governments and stakeholders to strengthen their institutional, technical, and legal infrastructure and capacity for sound chemicals management. UNITAR is part of IOMC.

UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

The UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights is an independent expert mandated by the Human Rights Council to help States, businesses and other stakeholders adopt solutions to human rights issues related to exposure to harmful substances. The current mandate holder is Marcos A. Orellana, appointed Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights in August 2020.

World Health Organization | WHO

Through the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), WHO works to establish the scientific basis for the sound management of chemicals, and to strengthen national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety.

At the Seventy-sixth World Health Assembly (WHA76) that took place in Geneva from 21 to 30 May 2023, a resolution on the impact of chemicals, waste, and pollution on human health initially tabled by Peru, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Monaco, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the European Union and its Member States was adopted.

GEN Events


Geneva Toxic Free Talks 2023

20 – 22 September 2023

Health, Chemicals, Plastics & a Non-Toxic Circular Economy

Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues & BRS COPs Side Event | 9 June 2022

Chemicals, Waste and Biodiversity

CBD Side Event | 27 March 2022