Keeping People Safe from Chemicals and Chemicals Safe from People

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Bhopal Memorial

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Keeping People Safe from Chemicals and Chemicals Safe from People

From medicine to agriculture chemicals have saved lives, been at the forefront of pioneering innovations, and fed the world. But although chemicals hold promise, their use also bears great risk. It is our responsibility to protect people from chemicals and chemicals from people.

On the night of December 2nd, 1984, gallons of cleaning water flowed through the wrong pipes of a Union Carbide pesticide plant, seeped into an over-filled tank of 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, and caused an explosive reaction leaking tons of lethal gas into the air above Bhopal, India. Over a half-million people were exposed to a gas cloud of methyl isocyanate and other chemicals over the subsequent winter days, leading to an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 deaths and at least 700,000 injuries.

The Bhopal disaster’s immediate causes were an unintentional deactivation of multiple safety mechanisms and user error. From a broader perspective, however, it was the result of a lack of attention to, and respect for, the power of chemistry. Many have rightly called attention to keeping people safe from hazardous industrial chemicals. But this framing of the problem overlooks the fact that it is we who have brought these substances into being, which have unquestionably revolutionized our society.  From plastics to agriculture to medicines, the welfare of billions depend on chemicals that improve and prolong life while simultaneously possessing the ability to cause great harm to us and the environment. And it is people – from lab to factory to cash register – who determine the properties of these compounds and how they are used. We are their custodians.

And with great power goes great responsibility (lest you assume this is a quote from Uncle Ben Parker, it was spoken by J. Hector Fezandie in an 1894 graduation address at The Stevens Institute of Technology entitled The Moral Influence of a Scientific Education). As their custodians, we have the responsibility to keep chemicals safe from people – meaning preventing both unintentional mismanagement and intentional misuse.

“Chemistry is not limited to beakers and laboratories. It is all around us, and the better we know chemistry, the better we know our world.” - American Chemical Society

The worst industrial disaster in history was a catalyst for the chemical industry to improve their safety, health, and environmental impacts. The incident was also a call to arms for facilities to address security vulnerabilities. Like a double-edged sword, many chemicals can be considered “dual-use,” with applications both in industry and, if they fall into the wrong hands, as precursors to chemical weapons. One such component of Bhopal’s toxic methyl isocyanate gas, for example, is phosgene, an infamous chemical warfare agent used in World War I. Given the globalized state of the chemical supply chain, fully addressing these concerns requires committed international collaboration.

In 1985, the Chemical Industry Association of Canada launched Responsible Care ®, a global industry-driven initiative to continuously improve environmental, health, safety, and security performance. Responsible Care practices have now been adopted by the chemical industry in 60 countries. With time, industries across the world have started recognizing the importance of voluntarily addressing all aspects of responsible chemical management including security.

That same year, a United Nations investigation concluded that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, developed partially through the legal chemical trade.  This finding motivated a group of 15 counties led by Australia concerned about unintentional sale and diversion of chemical weapon precursors to gather in Brussels to discuss how to jointly close loopholes in their export controls. The Australia Group as it became known now includes 41 states and the European Union, committed to preventing the spread of chemical weapons by controlling the export of dual-use chemicals, technologies, and equipment.

International efforts to end the intentional use of chemicals to cause suffering culminated in 1997 with the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a treaty banning signatories from producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons, and committing them to their destruction. The convention went a step further, promoting international cooperation in the peaceful use of chemistry among the 192 states now bound to the agreement.

On May 2 to 4, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – established to promote and verify adherence to the CWC – celebrates the first annual International Day for the Foundation of the OPCW with a series of events in The Hague entitled Chemical Safety and Security in a Technologically Evolving World. At the 19th anniversary of the ratification of the CWC, attention has clearly gone beyond preventing proliferation by nation states to cross-sector collaboration to keep chemicals that improve our lives secure from non-state actors. With the lethal use of mustard gas by ISIL in Iraq, likely derived from precursors prevalent in the oil industry, this is no longer a philosophical discussion.

It is for these reasons that CRDF Global with funding from the U.S. Department of State Chemical Security Program, focuses on fostering cross-sector approaches to chemical security to raise awareness of risks, secure physical facilities, build human capacity, and train emergency responders world-wide.

With support from the Chemical Security Program, CRDF Global recently implemented the first National Chemical and Biological Security Coordination Conference in Baghdad. The conference convened Iraqi government, security, industrial, and academic sectors to discuss national efforts, interagency coordination, and best practices, and address security gaps to counter chemical and biological proliferation in Iraq. During a divisive political period for a country with a bitter history of chemicals used to destructive effect, these efforts provide an opportunity for Iraqis to join behind a united front.

And India, a country once victim to the worst chemical accident in history, has since taken aggressive steps to improve chemical security. I witnessed these steps in April when CRDF Global and the Indian Chemical Council held workshops for chemical manufactures and transporters to address the chemical safety and security risks facing the world’s second largest country. In June of this year, highlighting India’s new leadership role in responsible chemical security management, CRDF Global and the Indian Chemical Council will hold a Regional Chemical Security Leadership Summit, gathering industry partners from across Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, committed to Responsible Care initiatives and enhancing chemical security.

On this first International Day for the Foundation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we have much to be proud of and work still to do. Rather than fearing chemistry, let us celebrate the international collaborations that are fostering science for peaceful purposes, improving industry to better our lives, keeping people and the environment safe from hazardous chemicals, and keeping chemicals safe from people.