The illegal trade of chemicals is the subject of a report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which highlights knowledge gaps and enforcement challenges related to the regulating trade in toxic, hazardous, and severely restricted chemicals.

The report titled, ‘The Illegal Trade in Chemicals,’ was released on 1 April 2020. In discussing the governance and markets of the illegal chemicals and waste trade, the authors review enforcement failures and best practices, and provide recommendations for policymakers, as well as for communities and users of chemicals. 

According to the publication, multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) regulate only a fraction of the chemicals being traded, amid exemptions under MEAs and inconsistencies among domestic regulations. The authors report that many toxic products are easily accessible in the marketplace or online, and a lack of reporting mechanisms means that information on illegal trade is scarce and hinders the ability of authorities to act.

The report provides a particular focus on the illegal trade of pesticides and mercury, both of which are subject to strong international regulations. However, the scale of illegal trade in these chemicals is unknown, and users of the substances are often unaware of the risks they pose. The authors suggest that public-private partnerships can help raise awareness among vendors, local farmers, rural communities, and private landowners about the health and environmental risks associated with pesticides. They also find that: 

  • annual revenue losses of €1.3 billion in the legitimate pesticides industry in the EU are attributable to counterfeit pesticides;
  • an estimated 30% of pesticides sold in developing countries are sub-standard;
  • half of all mercury used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is traded illegally; and
  • the value of illegally-traded mercury is USD 100–215 million annually.

Legitimate businesses, national economies, and human health and the environment are bearing the brunt of the illegal chemicals trade, write the authors. They recommend: building expertise and capacity to identify illegal shipments; establishing national reporting mechanisms to assess illegal trade within national jurisdictions; better controlling the production and marketing of gold and the harmonization of gold-export regimes to reduce the drivers of illicit cross-border trade; and standardized regional mercury-specific trade frameworks and anti-corruption campaigns at the local and national levels.

A challenge to reducing illegal chemicals trade is that law enforcement officers are not adequately trained or equipped to detect and recognize illicit chemicals and counterfeit containers. Shipping documents may not report mercury concealed among other materials, or mercury may be delivered in secret to a small port by fishing boat.

The report recommends that policymakers work to ensure the availability of human and technical resources to combat illegal trade, including to maintain staffing levels and train law enforcement officers to identify and interdict illicit movements of hazardous chemicals, and developing intelligence systems for sharing information among agencies and the coordinating transnational enforcement operations. 

The report was prepared by UNEP and GRID-Arendal in partnership with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), the Center for Environmental Law (CIEL), INTERPOL and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), among others. [Publication Landing Page] [Publication: The Illegal Trade in Chemicals