Do you know what's in that teddy bear?


GENEVA — While worrying about swine flu, you might be overlooking dangers lurking in your own living room, according to the International Conference on Chemicals Management, meeting in Geneva this week.

A wide range of new threats, ranging from experimental nano technologies to exotic chemicals used in the microprocessors in cellphones and laptop computers can be lethal.

“They are in everything around us,” said Matthew Gubb, a coordinator at the secretariat of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is hosting the Geneva conference.

Some 200 international conventions concerning chemical use have been signed since the early 20th century. This week’s meeting, which is being attended by 140 governments, 60 NGOs, 20 international organizations, and the CEOs of eight major chemical companies, intends to start the process of setting universal standards. This is particularly important for the emerging markets, which are most likely to continue using dangerous chemicals that the developed world has long since put aside.

Children in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of dangerous chemicals, but in the globalized economy dangerous substances can show up almost anywhere. That cuddly teddy bear that you buy for your kid may boast an American brand, but the components that went into making it could just as easily come from China, Mexico or any of a score of emerging economies, each with its own view of what constitutes safety. The recent panic over lead paint in toys manufactured in China is just one example.

“The fact is that when you buy a toy in a store, you have no idea of where its materials came from,” said Alexandra Caterbrow,of Women in Europe for a Common Future, an NGO that is lobbying for tighter controls and more transparency in labeling. Caterbrow said that the negative effects from some of these chemicals can range from increased autism in children to damage to the endocrine system. The problem, she said, is that when restrictions are established, exceptions usually follow, and often these are based on factors that have nothing to do with scientific evidence.

The newer nanotechnologies, which rely on manufactured molecule-sized particles that may be only a 50,000th the width of a human hair, pose new threats. Nano technology promises miraculous breakthroughs in products from portable filters for drinking water, to crystals that can remove arsenic contamination from wells, to clothes that repel dirt.

A somewhat frivolous, but impressive example of the nano potential is a self-cleaning necktie, which Chinese manufacturers proudly presented to then-President George W. Bush.

But without extensive and fairly elaborate testing it is not yet clear that nano technologies won’t also produce unintended side effects, especially if the countries experimenting with them lack the sophisticated controls that have gradually evolved in more developed countries.

“By their very size and physical properties, there is a potential to enter the body and harm organs,” said Leslie Onyon, of SAICM. “The challenge," said Onyon,"is to be aware of these chemicals and to know which products they are in.”

The exotic chemicals that go into electronic circuits are another cause for concern. There are roughly 1.5 billion laptops in the world today, and that number is expected to double shortly. While contaminated waste dumps can be a problem, there is also a danger that hazardous chemicals in older laptops are being recycled into newer ones, prolonging the danger.

Transparency and education are crucial factors in deciding what materials to use in manufacturing. While chemical industries have a financial interest in selling the products they have already developed, it is often possible to substitute a safe substance for a dangerous one at no real increase in cost. The trick is to make sure that both the chemical companies and the public know that the alternatives are there.

Since some of the combinations of materials are extremely complex, SAICM, which is supported both by the United Nations Environmental Program and by the World Health Organization, is aiming for a partnership that will bring national governments, the private sector and NGOs together to share information and viewpoints, and then to count on common sense and national responsibility to do the right thing. In the meantime, it is up to the consumer to be alert and stay informed.

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