IOMC Reflects on its First 20 Years and Highlights 20 Achievements
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The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), which now brings together nine intergovernmental organizations actively involved in chemical safety.

The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), which now brings together nine intergovernmental organizations actively involved in chemical safety. They include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This article describes how the IOMC has grown and adapted over the years, and highlights 20 of its achievements.


The IOMC was established in 1995 as an international coordinating group following recommendations made by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and in particular, those in Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 about toxic chemicals.

The objective of the IOMC is to strengthen international cooperation in the field of chemical safety and to increase the effectiveness of the organisations’ international chemical safety programmes[1], in order to achieve the sound management of chemicals in relation to human health and the environment. During its first 10 years, IOMC efforts focused on addressing the six priority areas of Chapter 19 (many of which are found in the 20 achievements below).[2] The second 10 years focused around the priorities of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) framework.


The following list describes 20 achievements of the IOMC in its first 20 years of existence.

Specific Chemicals Management Topics

1. Supporting and promoting Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs)

A number of IOMC organizations, such as OECD, UNITAR, and UNEP have developed guidance and promoted and supported country projects to set up PRTRs as a key source of data for both government and public use regarding the amounts of chemicals and other pollutants released to air, water, and soil and transferred off-site for treatment or disposal.‌[3]

2. Harmonizing Classification and Labelling

Based on a mandate from Chapter 19, an IOMC Coordinating Group for the Harmonization of Chemical Classification Systems managed the development of the GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals), completed in 2001.[4] Existing tools of some organizations (WHO, FAO) have since been revised to be consistent with the GHS, and OECD, UNITAR, and ILO have established a partnership to facilitate implementation of the GHS in developing countries.[5] The ILO/WHO International Chemical Safety Cards now include GHS classifications.

3. Assessing chemicals for risks to health and the environment

The OECD assesses existing chemicals through sharing the work of information gathering, testing, and assessment of existing chemicals among OECD countries and identifying needs for further work on such chemicals.[6] Since 1995, WHO has published hundreds of assessments of chemicals of international interest found in air, water, food and the occupational environment.[7] FAO and WHO work together to establish Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for pesticides in food and technical specifications that define the quality of pesticides used in agriculture and public health.

4. Developing and harmonizing chemical risk assessment methodologies

To improve chemical risk assessment methodologies, WHO and OECD collaborate on risk assessment and make information available electronically (via INCHEM and eCHEMPortal – see entry #5). Work by WHO and OECD promotes the development, harmonization and use of generally acceptable, scientifically sound methodologies for the evaluation of risks to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals and disseminate their tools through risk assessment toolkits.[8] The two organizations also develop and harmonize methodologies for chemical risk assessment as a significant contribution to requests stemming from both UNECD in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002.[9] FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) have produced guidance on the evaluation and registration of pesticides, which is being consolidated into an electronic Pesticide Registration Toolkit to be launched in 2015.

5. Hosting Global Portals to Information on Chemical Substances

The eChemPortal, hosted by OECD (accessed 829,522 times in 2014), links to 29 major databases of countries, the European Commission, WHO, and OECD, and provides direct access to critical scientific information needed to meet public health and environmental objectives.[10] The ‘INCHEM: Chemical Safety Information from Intergovernmental Organizations’ portal hosted by WHO (accessed 1.4 million times in 2014) consolidates current, internationally peer-reviewed chemical safety-related publications and database records.[11]

6. Supporting countries to integrate Sound Chemicals Management into development plans

A partnership initiative by UNDP and UNEP has facilitated the integration of sound chemicals management into national development planning processes. This involves establishing the links between poverty reduction and sound chemicals management, which can not only reduce adverse health effects and environmental pollution, but can also bring increased economic security and income opportunities for the poor.[12]

7. Addressing the problems of obsolete pesticides

Thousands of tons of accumulated obsolete pesticides have been removed and safely destroyed with the support of FAO, the World Bank, UNEP and UNDP. The quantification, packaging, transport and destruction of obsolete pesticides follow strict rules and procedures, in compliance with international regulations. IOMC assistance to address obsolete pesticides is usually accompanied with a programme to strengthen national capacity to prevent the recurrence of obsolete pesticide accumulation, assist with hazardous waste management, and remediate chemical contamination.

8. Preventing and managing chemical accidents and emergencies

A number of IOMC organizations, including UNEP, WHO, and OECD, have helped increase developing countries’ capacities to prevent and respond to chemical accidents and emergencies by writing guidelines, carrying out training programmes, and improving countries’ access to information, tools, and support systems such as poison centres.[13] The International Health Regulations were updated in 2005 to include chemicals emergencies.

Coordination and Joint Action

9. From coordination to joint action

While IOMC was initially established as a coordinating body, it has evolved to become a platform for joint action and implementation of work at country, regional and international levels. Meeting twice a year, the IOMC’s Inter-Organization Coordinating Committee (IOCC) plans and monitors activities undertaken jointly or individually by the Participating Organizations.[14] Coordinating groups on specific topics are periodically established when necessary (e.g. POPs, GHS, assessment of industrial chemicals, mercury).[15]

10. Enlarging with new participants

While starting with coordination between six organizations, the IOMC enlarged its scope with the addition of UNITAR, the World Bank, and UNDP, whose work on chemicals is linked to training, development, and poverty reduction. By signing a high-level memorandum of understanding (MOU) and paying annual membership fees, members signal their commitment to joint action.

11. Engaging with international bodies beyond IOMC

The IOMC has kept abreast of new issues and priorities by communicating regularly with other groups and engaging with related processes. For example, the IOMC meets regularly with and contributes to activities organized by the SAICM Secretariat, the Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Minamata Conventions, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In many cases, IOMC organizations contribute significantly to supporting the implementation of the conventions (see next section).

12. Developing joint guidance

As a way to provide access to information in a single place (rather than through nine separate organizations), the IOMC develops, publishes, and disseminates joint guidance documents and tools to assist countries and stakeholders in strengthening their national chemicals management capacities, including in the context of SAICM.[16]

13. The IOMC toolbox

The internet based ‘Toolbox for Decision-Making in Chemicals Management’ (IOMC Toolbox) is a new instrument created to help countries address specific issues in chemicals management. The Toolbox identifies available IOMC resources that will help countries address identified national problems or objectives, with a focus on identifying simple, cost-effective solutions.[17]

International Conventions

14. Supporting countries to implement the Stockholm Convention

Many IOMC organizations support countries in different aspects related to implementing the Stockholm Convention and have helped develop guidance for National Implementation Plans (NIPs), assisted countries directly with NIP development, as well as supported implementation of NIP actions and recommendations.[18]

15. Supporting countries to implement the Rotterdam Convention

As with the Stockholm Convention, and via a Secretariat provided jointly by FAO and UNEP, many IOMC organizations have assisted countries with activities supporting Rotterdam Convention implementation, such as through action plans and technical support.[19]

16. Supporting countries to ratify and prepare for the Minamata Convention

The IOMC has initiated a coordinated approach to assist countries with activities related to the recent Minamata Convention, including support for ratification and for developing countries to formulate Minamata Initial Assessments and artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) national action plans.[20] This exercise has again demonstrated the value of knowledge sharing and the development and use of practical guidelines to assess the use of mercury.


The IOMC has played a central role in the evolution of SAICM, and a few highlights are provided below.

17. Contributing to SAICM development

The IOMC was a co-convener, together with UNEP and the Intergovernmental Forum for Chemicals Safety (IFCS), of the first International Conference on Chemical Safety (ICCM) held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 2006 that finalized and endorsed the Strategic Approach. During that first ICCM, the nine Executive Heads of agencies cooperating in the IOMC issued a Joint Statement about their participation in the implementation of the SAICM.[21]

18. A leading role in SAICM Emerging Policy Issues (EPIs)

The 2nd ICCM in May 2009 agreed to pursue work on emerging policy issues and the IOMC organizations committed to act as lead agencies for those issues, as follows:

  • Lead in paint: WHO and UNEP
  • Chemicals in products: UNEP
  • Hazardous substances within the life cycle of electrical and electronic products (“E-waste”) : UNIDO
  • Nanotechnologies and manufactured nanomaterials : OECD and UNITAR
  • Managing perfluorinated chemicals and the transition to safer alternatives: OECD and UNEP.[22]

19. Assisting countries in developing and undertaking SAICM Quick Start Programme projects

IOMC organizations have assisted many countries in undertaking projects under the SAICM Quick Start Programme Trust Fund: of 184 projects approved over 14 rounds, IOMC organizations have acted as executing agencies for 131 of those projects (over 70%).[23] IOMC organizations also act as the members of the Implementation Committee that meets twice a year to review and appraise project proposals and make recommendations on Trust Fund application procedures, funding, and management of the projects.[24]

20. Reviewing and analyzing work to implement SAICM

The SAICM Global Plan of Action lists nearly 300 activities that identify one or more IOMC organizations as “Actors”. The IOMC issued a review of IOMC organizations’ implementation of the SAICM Global Plan of Action, prepared an analysis of work done to implement the SAICM GPA, and developed four key issue documents on chemical accidents and emergency response, GHS, highly hazardous pesticides, and mainstreaming (the issue documents provide a short overview of the elements of each issue, summarise progress and gaps, and suggest possible ways forward for reaching the 2020 goal for sound management of chemicals).[25]


What lessons or conclusions can be drawn from the IOMC experience that might inform future efforts?

Beginning as a coordination mechanism, IOMC’s work has led, over time, to deeper collaboration and joint action. The challenges posed by chemicals and hazardous waste are enduring and constantly evolving, as developing countries intensify their economies and the entire world increases its reliance on chemicals. The ability to change and adapt is key to meeting these challenges. There is a growing urgency to assess and manage chemicals more comprehensively.

The IOMC is prepared to respond and continue to play a key role in providing essential information and scientific evidence to support sound chemicals management. Widespread endorsement of a framework for action for the 2020 goal, like SAICM, led to an unprecedented level of commitment by the IOMC through a joint declaration, collective action to address emerging policy issues, close collaboration with the SAICM secretariat, and a major role for IOMC in SAICM implementation and support.

SAICM fora and IOMC organizations’ governing bodies are both important venues of support in order to continue these actions. The IOMC organizations’ different areas of expertise (health, environment, agriculture, labour, industry, waste management, development) enable IOMC to respond efficiently to the different problems that arise from the use of chemicals worldwide.

The IOMC experience has shown that distributing responsibilities among international agencies – e.g. for risk assessment, standard setting, capacity building and technical assistance – is effective and maximizes comparative advantages in making progress under international programmes, multilateral agreements, and SAICM.

The IOMC looks forward to addressing these challenges in the future by continuing to support SAICM (and its new Overall Orientation and Guidance), by supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and post-2015 development agenda, by continuing to adapt and increase collaboration with other organisations working on chemical safety, and by addressing the opportunities and challenges that arise in the next 20 years.


The authors thank Jonathan Krueger, consultant, for his assistance in preparing this article.

[1] The IOMC is the pre-eminent mechanism for initiating, facilitating and coordinating international action to achieve the WSSD 2020 goal for sound management of chemicals.

[2] The six programme areas of Agenda 21 para 19.4.are (a) Expanding and accelerating international assessment of chemical risks; (b) Harmonization of classification and labelling of chemicals; (c) Information exchange on toxic chemicals and chemical risks; (d) Establishment of risk reduction programmes; (e) Strengthening of national capabilities and capacities for management of chemicals; (f) Prevention of illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous products.

[7] The various assessments can be accessed via:

[16] Examples include the 2012 “National Implementation of SAICM: A Guide to Resource, Guidance, and Training Materials of IOMC Participating Organizations” and the 2008 “IOMC: Assisting Countries with the Transition Phase for GHS Implementation – Tools and resources of the IOMC to support implementation of the GHS.”

[23] As of June 2015, see SAICM/EB.10/4.

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