Carnegie Mellon University
November 13, 2023

Scientists Flag Conflicts of Interest Ahead of UN Plastic, Chemical Talks

Carnegie Mellon's Ryan Sullivan is among the researchers calling for more transparency in work related to the UN Science-Policy Panel on chemical pollution

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982
Kaitlyn Landram
  • College of Engineering

An international group of 35 scientists is calling out conflicts of interest plaguing global plastic treaty negotiations and that have interfered with timely action on other health and environmental issues. They urge the implementation of strict guidelines to prevent the same problems from affecting the UN's upcoming Science Policy Panel on chemicals.

Among the scientists calling for change is Carnegie Mellon University's Ryan Sullivan, who just covered environmental health and toxic substances in his course Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet.

"The students were shocked that potentially toxic everyday-everywhere chemicals are used so widely in products they use every day and asked, 'why is this allowed?"' said Sullivan, a professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering and the associate director of the Institute for Green Science.

The scientists' recommendations and concerns are outlined in a paper published Nov. 9 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. This is part of efforts being led by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution.

Sullivan said that the role that the chemicals industry has been allowed to play in blocking and diluting the few regulations around toxic chemicals, and the lack of any international policies regarding chemical pollution are two main reasons why harmful chemicals continue to be made and widely used.

"We wrote this paper to inform how the United Nations constructs a new science-policy panel focusing on chemical pollution and waste that needs to avoid these conflicts of interest from interfering in its important work," he said.

Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg said that From Big Tobacco to Big Oil, powerful industries use the same playbook to manufacture doubt and sow misinformation.

"The plastic and chemical industries already have a long history of deploying these tactics to hamper regulatory efforts," Almroth said. "Our health and that of the planet upon which we rely, can't afford any further subversion of efforts to reduce the widespread contamination of our air and water."

The group's warning comes as countries prepare to meet next week for the third UN plastic treaty negotiation session in Nairobi. Though scientists had advised against it, the plastic and petrochemical industries were actively involved in the first round of negotiations in 2022. The paper notes that industry representatives pushed misleading statements, including the debunked claim that plastic production will help fight climate change. To date, no action has been taken to curb these conflicts of interest. 

The scientists express concern that similar issues could arise in the development of the UN Science Policy Panel on chemicals, waste and pollution. The UN Environment Assembly decided in 2022 to establish this Panel to support countries in their efforts to protect human and ecosystem health through scientific assessments. As the working group to create the Panel will meet Dec. 11-15, the paper is a call to protect its work from undue influence by companies with a vested interest in revenue-generating chemicals.

"Letting polluters have a say in pollution protections is the epitome of the fox guarding the henhouse," said lead author Andreas Schäffer, professor at the Institute for Environmental Research at RWTH Aachen University. "Just like the tobacco industry was restricted from WHO's work on smoking, the UN shouldn't let the chemical industry's hired guns dilute global guidelines for chemical and waste management."

The participation of industry in a UN intergovernmental science-policy body would not be unprecedented. For example, fossil fuel representatives co-authored major reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Science Policy's Panel analogue for climate.

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