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New OECD guidance paves way for more robust environmental risk assessment for metals

9 February 2017

Ben Davies

Protecting people and the environment from the adverse effects of chemicals has long been seen as the responsibility of government. In recent times however, industry has been called to play a much more active role. And this makes perfect sense – industry has the resources, the knowledge and the data needed to assess the materials it produces. In the case of ICMM members this includes minerals and metals – which are regulated as ‘chemicals’ under ‘chemicals management’ regimes.

The landmark REACH regulation in Europe paved the way for this trend by reversing the burden of proof: industry must now prove a substance is safe for humans and the environment before it can be marketed, rather than governments needing to prove they are dangerous.

The approach is gaining traction internationally and our industry supports the philosophy; we’ve been contributing actively to the development of guidance on how to perform accurate risk assessments for minerals and metals for over a decade.

There is now a consolidated resource to help countries design their environmental risk assessment systems, or improve them for minerals and metals to ensure that the true risks can be evaluated.  The OECD today released a guidance document, marking successful two-year collaboration with ICMM and Eurometaux through its Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC).

The guide outlines how to perform ecological risk assessment for metals and other inorganic substances and will help to improve regulatory systems around the world.

It addresses an inherent weakness of many existing systems: that they were designed to assess organic substances and typically fail to recognise the unique properties of minerals and metals – such as their natural occurrence and capacity to exist in many different chemical forms, each with its own particular level of hazard to the environment. It is how these factors combine to affect the ‘bioavailability’ – the real concentration of metals that the environment ‘sees’ that the OECD guidance deals with.

Failure to recognise such concepts often results in an exaggeration of risk and so vital resources are spent on the wrong management measures rather than being targeted where they are really needed.

Minerals and metals can be difficult to assess using traditional frameworks, so ensuring that regulation is designed with the best available science ensures maximum environmental protection and creates a level playing field for our industry in terms of market access and competition between materials.