The United States and many other countries throughout the world have developed a Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The GHS is the culmination of more than a decade of work. After ten years of technical work and negotiation, a United Nations Economic and Social Council Subcommittee adopted the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling ("GHS") and recommended that it be disseminated throughout the world. By promoting common, consistent criteria for classifying chemicals and developing compatible labeling and safety data sheets, the Globally Harmonized System is intended to enhance public health and environmental protection, as well as reduce barriers to trade. Countries lacking systems for hazard classification and labeling may adopt the GHS as the fundamental basis for national policies for the sound management of chemicals; countries that already have systems may align them with GHS. The GHS document is available from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) website.
The goal of establishing "a globally harmonized classification and compatible labeling system, including safety data sheets and easily understandable symbols by the year 2000." was set out in the report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 (3-13 June 1992, Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). This goal was later endorsed by both the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) and the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) which coordinates the actions of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) aimed at implementing Chapter 19.
GHS hazard classification criteria are adopted by consensus for physical hazards and key health and environmental classes, such as acute toxicity, carcinogenicity, and developmental toxicity. For each of these hazard classes, standardized label elements -- including symbols, signal words and hazard statements -- have been developed and agreed on, along with a standard format and approach to how GHS information appears on safety data sheets. The GHS document includes guidance on other issues relevant to implementation of the system, including product identifiers, confidential business information, and precedence of hazards.
The GHS is a voluntary system and does not impose binding treaty obligations on countries. However, to the extent that countries adopt the GHS into national regulatory requirements, it will be binding on the regulated community. The UNITAR is working with a number of agencies (including ILO and OECD) and governments to help developing countries implement GHS.
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