The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts performs environmental hazard assessments of chemicals used in Australia. It undertakes assessments for new chemicals and selected chemicals that are already in use.
These assessments are carried out as part of the:
- National Registration Scheme (for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals) and the
- National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS)
The Department participates in these schemes by providing environmental assessment reports and advice to the coordinating agencies that administer the relevant Acts. In the National Registration Scheme, the assessments might be for new active ingredients in plant protection and animal health products, or for active ingredients already registered for which the use is being extended. Under NICNAS a wide range of industrial chemicals are covered, such as photographic chemicals, dyes, oil additives, water treatment chemicals, cosmetics and leather treatment chemicals.
The environmental assessment deals with the non-human environment, that is the assessment is made on the potential of the chemical(s) to affect the environment and ecosystems. The Department of Health and Ageing reviews the chemical's potential to affect human health while NICNAS reviews occupational health and safety aspects. The AVPMA performs reviews on the chemical's efficacy and potential to lead to residues in food.
The Department establishes the hazard of a product to the environment by using the information provided by the company and the information available from other sources, such as literature searches and overseas assessment reports. This information includes chemical and physical properties environmental fate studies and test results for such organisms as mammals, birds, fish, insects, crustaceans, plants, etc.
The environmental hazard of the chemical is assessed by considering the exposure and toxicity data. It determines:
- the extent of environmental exposure; and
- the toxicity of the chemical to a range of aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora.
The hazard assessment is a comparison of the results from the evaluation of the exposure and the toxic effects. It takes into account the method and frequency of application, as well as the substance's persistence and mobility in the environment. If levels in the environment are much lower than those at which toxicity occurs, the hazard may be accepted as low. Depending on the degree of environmental hazard, actions to minimise this hazard may be considered, such as specific restraints or label instructions and warnings.
The National Registration Scheme operates under the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Administration) Act 1992 and subsequent Acts. It requires companies or individuals proposing to sell or use an agricultural or veterinary chemical product to first establish that the product is safe and effective before it can be registered.
The definitions of agricultural and veterinary chemical products are set out in the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act. They are very broad and do not restrict the requirement for registration to chemical products used only in agricultural production.
Registration is required for a large range of products that, in broad terms, kill pests and control disease. Consequently, products such as swimming pool chemicals, home garden and domestic pest control products, dog and cat collars and veterinary medicines for pets are required to be registered. Products which fall outside the scheme include fertilisers, headlice treatment for humans, stockfoods, cut flower preservatives and disinfectants.
The National Registration Scheme is administered by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (AVPMA)
The AVPMA also reviews existing chemicals through the Chemical Review Programme, which again requires a comprehensive environmental assessment.
NICNAS operates under the Commonwealth Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989. It was established in 1990 to provide for the notification and assessment of chemicals which are not covered by other assessment schemes. As such, the definition of an industrial chemical is a 'catch-all' phrase, defined by the exclusion of other types of regulated chemicals. Therefore, this definition of industrial chemicals includes substances such as dyes, solvents, plastics and photographic chemicals as well as some chemicals used in the home, for example, paints, cleaning agents and cosmetics, but not pharmaceutical substances, agricultural and veterinary chemicals, food or food additives and radioactive substances.
Under NICNAS, all new industrial chemicals must be notified and assessed for their potential effects on occupational health and safety, public (human health) safety and environmental impact before their importation into, or manufacture within, Australia. NICNAS sets out the obligations for importers and manufacturers and ensures that they provide information about a chemical's properties and potential health and environmental effects before introducing it into Australia.
Excisting chemicals are also reviewed on a priority basis, and again require an environmental assessment.