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Economic development has been driven, to a considerable extent, by progress and innovation in the chemical industry.

Intensive production and wide usage make chemicals a major cause of concern. A significant number of chemicals find their way into millions of consumer products, and from there enter the environment. Whether or not a chemical is hazardous to human beings or ecosystems depends on its properties, its form, the environmental medium in which it is found, its concentration, and the stages of potential exposure.

Tracing the path of certain hazardous chemicals in the environment is frequently complicated by the fact that the same chemicals occur naturally. Once released into the environment, chemicals become part of complex natural atmospheric, geochemical and biological cycles.

Toxic products can be found in the air, water, soil and biosphere, and in the food we eat.

  • Air is one of the main carriers of chemicals, many of which are emitted from combustion processes. Chemicals are removed from the air by means of photodegradation, particle sedimentation and precipitation. Substances that are not easily degradable can follow atmospheric circulation patterns on a global scale, leading, for example, to the presence of halogenated hydrocarbons, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in polar regions, far from their industrial or agriculture sources.
  • Water is the initial receiving medium for many industrial discharges and household chemicals such as detergents and cleaners that are disposed of in drains after usage. Leakages from municipal and industrial sewerage systems, landfills and storage tanks, as well as accidental spills, can pollute surface waters and groundwater. The migration behaviour of a chemical substance in water is largely determined by its chemical and physicochemical properties.
  • Soils receive chemicals as a result of combustion processes, pesticide application, landfilling and other waste disposal methods, leakages from petrol stations or industrial sites, and accidents. Soils act as reservoirs for many chemicals of toxicological relevance, such as heavy metals. Slow and delayed releases occur over time. Eroded soil particles can act as secondary sources, releasing organic and inorganic chemicals into the air, surface waters and groundwater, and, ultimately, the sea.
  • In the biosphere, toxic chemical substances harm plants and animals, which also provide a means for their dispersion. Lipids, such as mammalian milk, can absorb certain halogenated organic compounds.

The complexity and development of chemical products in recent years has outpaced systematic research into their environmental impacts, despite the fact that serious and undesirable effects have been detected in terms of both human health and the environment.

Belarus has a developed industrial sector, with the chemical industry as one of its branches. Major chemical companies are located in Babruysk, Gomel, Grodno, Mogilev, Navapolatsk and Svietlahorsk. The most dangerous chemical pollutants are emitted during the production of plastics, rubber products, organic solvents, synthetic fibres and fertilisers.

The most hazardous inorganic emissions are carbon monoxide, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, and ammonia. Some inorganic pollutants are released into the air and water along with heavy metals. The Belarusian Metallurgical Plant, for example, a steel enterprise located near Zhlobin, releases iron into the air along with other inorganic pollutants.

Oil processing complexes in Navapolatsk and Mozyr emit a wide range of organic substances, including solvents and acids. Somewhat less dangerous is the building industry, which emits cement and wood dust, phenols and formaldehyde during the production of construction materials.

The chemical and petrochemical industry is one of the country’s largest industries in terms of production volume and number of employees. Other key industries include textile manufacturing and mining for potash.

The Belneftekhim petrochemical consortium comprises 83 factories and plants that produce synthetic resins and plastics. The consortium:

  • employs 120,000 workers;
  • is a major exporter of chemical products and produces 92.6 percent of the industry’s total output;
  • contributes a share of over 15 percent of the total industrial output of Belarus;
  • engages primarily in the production, transportation, refining and sale of petroleum products, the production of fertilisers, and the manufacturing of chemical fibres and yarns, tyres, glass fibres, paints, varnishes and plastic products.

The Naftan Production Association, located in Navapolatsk, is the largest refinery in Europe, and the Mozyr Oil Refinery is another giant in the domestic petrochemical industry.

The Mogilev Open Joint Stock Company (OJSC) is one of Europe’s largest facilities for the production of polyester fibres and yarns. The enterprise combines a series of industries into a single technological cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to finished products.

Svietlahorsk Khimvalakno OJSC is a modern enterprise engaged in the production of viscose filament yarn, cord fabric, polyester filament yarn, and carbon fibre materials and composites. It also has divisions that are developing industrial prototypes for the production of a non-woven polypropylene material called spunbond.

The Khimvolokno production and technological complex Grodno Azot JSC produces polyamide-based products such as tyre cord fabric for the tyre industry, fishing lines, rubber products, conveyor belts, bulk continuous filament fibres for carpets, floor coverings, and tufted and staple fibres.

The Belaruskaliy OJSC, based in Salihorsk, is one of the world’s largest producers and suppliers of potash fertilisers (11 percent of total world exports). It produces fine-grained potassium chloride, granular potassium chloride, mixed potassium salt, technical sodium chloride, salt for food and livestock, liquid brine, and salt blocks for halochambers.

Another modern enterprise, also called Grodno Azot JSC, produces ammonia, urea, caprolactam, liquid fertilisers, ammonium sulphate and sulphuric acid.

The Gomel Chemical Plant OJSC produces sulphuric acid, aluminium fluoride, cryolite, nepheline retardant, granular ammonium phosphate, anhydrous technical sodium sulphite, various brands of nitrogen-potassium-phosphate fertilisers, ammoniated superphosphate and aluminium sulphate.

Belshina OJSC is a versatile enterprise that produces tyres for cars, trucks, heavy goods vehicles, buses and trolley buses, as well as road construction machinery, tractors and agricultural machinery.

Statistics published annually in Belarus allow a rough estimation to be made of emissions from industrial enterprises located in major cities. The most polluted town in Belarus is Navapolatsk, followed by Minsk, Mozyr, Gomel, Grodno, Babruysk, Mogilev, Salihorsk, Zhlobin and Vitebsk. However, motor vehicles also contribute significantly to air pollution, and this contribution is not easy to assess correctly, which means that the reality may be somewhat different from the official figures.

Responsibility for the coordination, monitoring and control of chemical emissions is shared among a large number of agencies, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of the Economy, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. In carrying out their tasks, ministries and agencies are governed by legislative and other documents of different levels: decrees of the president of Belarus, laws of Belarus, decisions of the Council of Ministers, decisions taken at inter-ministerial level, and orders and decrees issued from separate departments. The country has also signed and ratified a number of international agreements.

Belarus has ratified the following international agreements:

  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal
  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
  • Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction
  • Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, and the London Amendment
  • European Agreement Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods
  • Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution

Further information about these conventions and other international agreements that have been signed or ratified by Belarus can be found on the website of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of the Republic of Belarus:

In the interests of national security and the protection of human health and the environment, the Presidential Decree on Licensing Certain Types of Activities (2003) requires that a licence be obtained for the handling of chemicals.

Chemicals-related activities are addressed in the Water Code of the Republic of Belarus, as well as in numerous laws, including the laws on:

  • The Sanitary-Epidemiological Welfare of the Population
  • Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Their Precursors
  • The Quality and Safety of Food Raw Materials and Food Products for Human Life and Health
  • Environmental Protection
  • Production and Consumption Wastes
  • State Ecological Expertise
  • Air Protection
  • The Protection of the Ozone Layer
  • The Industrial Safety of Hazardous Production Facilities
  • The Protection of the Population and Territories against Emergency Situations of a Natural and Technogenic Nature
  • The Transportation of Dangerous Goods
  • The Protection of Consumer Rights
  • Conformity with the Requirements of Technical Normative Legal Acts in the Sphere of Technical Regulation and Standardisation
  • Technical Regulation and Standardisation
  • Drinking Water Supply
  • Hydrometeorological Activity

In addition, requirements for monitoring the use of chemicals and preventing their negative impacts are defined in the decisions of the Council of Ministers on:

  • The Establishment of Prohibitions and Restrictions on the Movement of Goods across the Customs Border of the Republic of Belarus
  • Improvements to the State System of Hygienic Regulation and Registration of Chemical and Biological Substances, Materials and Products Made from Them, Production for Technical Purposes, Goods for Personal (Household) Needs, Food Raw Materials and Food Supply, as well as Materials and Products used for the Production, Packaging, Storage, Transportation, Sale and Other Methods of Processing Food Raw Materials and Food Products and Their Use
  • The National Environmental Monitoring System of the Republic of Belarus
  • Approval of the Regulations on Environment and Health Monitoring
  • The State System for the Prevention and Elimination of Emergency Situations
  • Procedures for Collecting Information Concerning the Protection of the Population and Territories against Emergency Situations of a Natural and Technogenic Nature and for the Exchange of Information
  • Measures for the Further Improvement of the State Regulation of Activities Related to the Protection of the Ozone Layer

The above legislation follows a basic framework and establishes the general requirements for preventing exposure to adverse environmental impacts. However, the existing instruments fail to address a number of important areas, such as requirements concerning the handling of chemicals, health risk assessment criteria, environmental criteria for banning the use of a chemical in the country, and classifications for labelling.

In addition to the laws mentioned above, the following acts govern public access to information and public participation in decision making:

  • The Law on Amendments and Additions to the Law on the Sanitary-Epidemiological Welfare of the Population guarantees citizens the right to apply to public bodies, public associations and officials in order to obtain information concerning the state of the environment and the quality and safety of products used for technical purposes, goods for personal (household) needs, and food and drinking water.
  • The Law on Environmental Protection establishes the right of public associations and citizens to organise a public environmental review by independent experts, who, in the prescribed manner, shall be entitled to receive from the initiator of a proposed activity the documentation that is subject to examination. The conclusions of a public environmental review may be sent to the authorities concerned in the form of a recommendation. Also according to this law, public bodies, legal entities and citizens are entitled to receive information from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection on the state of the environment, while pointing out the need to provide complete, reliable and timely information on the state of the environment, the status of pollution, measures for environmental protection and other environmental details.
  • The Law on the Industrial Safety of Hazardous Production Facilities stipulates that information on projected or actual accidents and their consequences must be transparent and open, unless otherwise stated by law.
  • The Law on Amendments and Additions to the Law on Production and Consumption Wastes establishes the possibility of examining waste management practices in order to prevent harmful effects on the environment and health, and to prevent and discourage waste management violations.

A list of items of environmental information was established by the Decree of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus No. 22 of May 29, 2003. According to this list, "environmental information" includes information on air quality, ozone-depleting substances, anthropogenic impacts on soil, drinking water and groundwater, natural and technogenic emergency situations, waste management, environmental impacts on human health, and the quality control of consumer goods.

Despite the existence of documents that ensure public access to information, such access often remains difficult in practice, especially if the information relates to hazardous chemicals and risks to human health and the environment.

There are several NGOs and other institutions engaged in efforts to raise awareness about chemicals and the associated risks to human health and the environment. They include:

The analysis of chemicals-related legislation is based on the report Analysis of Requirements and Determination of Mechanisms for the Effective Dissemination of Information to the Public of Belarus about the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), written by Yuri Soloviev and Elena Chernorutskaya (2012) in the framework of the International Public Organisation (IPO) Ecoproject Partnership.