WHO: Use of chemicals is on the rise in Bhutan especially in areas such as agriculture with use of more pesticides and fertilisers and in industries as raw materials, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) country office.

In addition, infrastructure to deal with hazards resulting from exposure to such chemicals or accidents is not yet optimal.

To deal with such chemical exposures especially to select cancer-causing chemicals, a project was funded from the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) through the Quick Start Programme (QSP) of the United Nations Environment Programme. According to WHO, the QSP programme is designed to assist governments identify their capacity building needs to manage chemicals soundly. The project has provided the means to make a study of the most effective means of preventing harm from chemical exposures by focusing on a few priority cancer-causing chemicals.

A WHO report titled, “the public health impact of chemicals: known and unknowns, International Programme on Chemical Safety 2016”, states that accidental poisonings from chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, paints, detergents, kerosene, carbon monoxide and drugs at home and in the workplace cause an estimated 193,000 deaths annually.

Occupational carcinogens are estimated to cause between two to eight percent of all cancers. For the general population, an estimated 14 percent of lung cancers are attributed to ambient air pollution, 17 percent to household air pollution, two percent to second-hand smoke and seven percent to occupational carcinogens.

The report also states that second-hand smoke and air pollution attributed to cause 35 percent of acute lower respiratory infections, including pneumonia, bronchitis and bronchiolitis, the most important cause of sickness and death in children.

An estimated 35 percent of overall chronic obstructive pulmonary disease burden is related by exposure to chemicals in second-hand smoke, air pollution or occupational gases, fumes and dusts. With over 800,000 individuals dying from suicides every year, about 20 percent of suicides could be prevented through restricting access to poisons. Self-poisoning with pesticides is rife in many countries enabled by the continued reliance and use of highly hazardous pesticides and their too-ready availability.

“These are not pleasant statistics for us to be complacent. We must act on the information we have and put our house in order to avoid preventable health impacts,” WHO Representative to Bhutan Dr Ornella Lincetto said.

She also said that the Sustainable Development Goals provide a compelling framework through which efforts will be monitored. “Three goals in particular will drive our attention to improved chemicals management each having a focus on the environmentally sound management of chemicals,” she said.

Urging all to work together, Dr Ornella Lincetto also emphasised strengthening collaborations that have been initiated among agencies to prevent diseases including cancers from chemical and save lives. “Saving lives is the biggest virtue all aspire to do and this is an opportune opportunity to do it.”

Therefore, to strengthen national capacities for sound management of priority carcinogenic chemicals in Bhutan, a final technical working group meeting on SAICM project was held from December 5 to 6 in Paro.

At the meeting, findings and recommendations from the SAICM project was finalised besides discussions on sustaining engagement of various agencies for future chemical works.

The WHO country office organised the meeting, in collaboration with the health ministry and National Environmental Commission. About 26 officials from various agencies dealing with chemicals directly or indirectly took part in the workshop that ends today. WHO’s regional advisor for occupational and environmental health, Lesley Onyon Jayne, lead a team of experts to provide technical support for the meeting.

Kinga Dema