Science, Research and Development Report to the Forum


Second Meeting; Oporto 12 - 13 November 2001



The Science Working Group started its activities in March 2001, with 27 people expressing interest in participation in the group. The full list of participants has been posted on the Working Group area of the NFMSD web site. The first activity was to follow up on the recommendations from the first Consultative Forum meeting in Brussels to prioritise the science related topics. This process led to a two-day meeting of the Science Working Group held in London on 19 and 20 April 2001. Rather than convene further face to face meetings of the full Group it was decided to set up four sub groups and to communicate by e-mail and teleconferences. The group has relied heavily on the efforts of those members who volunteered their services as sub-group champions. The co-chairs are grateful to those members who provided submissions, and contributed to the work of the Working Group by participating in conference calls and submitting written comments.

This report summarises the progress made by the Science Working Group, highlighting the issues being addressed and proposing a programme to develop a product from the Group. Reports relating to the Science Group's activities have been posted in the Members' Area of the Science Working Group on the NFMSD web site. A presentation of the progress will be made at the second Consultative Forum meeting in Oporto.


During its deliberations in London the Science Group identified four areas where it was felt that a contribution could be made to existing work underway on the science applied to the sustainable development of non-ferrous metals. These were:

The elaboration of a stock-take of existing science-related initiatives among intergovernmental organisations and research institutes in the field of sustainable development with a view to identifying synergies with the NFMSD process;

A framework for identifying metals-specific principles for risk assessment exercises, in contrast to the approaches used for organic chemicals risk assessments. This was to be followed by recommendations how the process can be improved;

Identification of guidelines for life cycle analysis of non-ferrous metals, with emphasis on material flows, harmonisation of methodology and data issues in relation to sustainable development. This was to be followed by means of integrating findings into existing processes underway;

Development of a technical web-based Science Network, sponsored by multi-stakeholders and voluntary in nature, to link up technical and scientific expertise across research institutions and topics.

1. The Stock-Take Exercise

The first phase of the stock-take exercise has been completed and has been posted onto the public area of the Working Group page of within the Science Working Group under "Other Documents". It lists science-related initiatives underway in seven organisations within the UN system, EU and OECD. In addition a further 24 research programmes were identified in academic and industry funded research centres. In each case details are given of research topics, web sites, contact e-mails and fax and telephone numbers.

A number of overlapping scientific initiatives were identified including;

Metallic raw materials flows;

Cleaner production technologies;

Principles of toxicology and risk assessment;

Ecological risk assessment;

Contaminated soils;

Resource management;

Bio-availability of essential metals.

Contact was also made with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who are attempting to assemble information on sustainable development initiatives relating to natural resources.

Future Action: It is suggested that delegates discuss how best this information resource can be used. It is also suggested that the Stock-take be integrated further into appropriate existing international databases, for example the UN system, to act as a quick reference source. A mechanism should also be developed to allow it to grow organically through user inputs.

2. Risk Assessment and Sustainable Development

The sub group on Risk Assessment has submitted a draft report following guidelines that were drawn up by the Science Group during its April 2001 meeting in London. A number of key issues were identified:

The place of risk assessments of metals in relation to their sustainability

The need to demonstrate the specificity of metals in risk assessments

The need to recommend the application of sound science on substitution as well as risk assessment of metals

The need to demonstrate the limitations of the Persistent Bioaccumalative and Toxic (PBT) approach

Recognition that education and communication of scientific issues required highlighting

The work that resulted looks at the role and importance of risk assessment in sustainable risk management policies and offers guidance on the concepts of hazard (in that a material has the potential in certain circumstances to cause harm) and risk (the likelihood that a potential hazard will actually cause harm).

The work addresses the fact that although risk assessment is a scientific process by which the risks are identified, estimated and evaluated, existing processes in the OECD International Programme on Chemicals Safety and the EU have not resulted in criteria appropriate for hazard identification for non-ferrous metals. Most screening processes for hazard identification for chemicals were developed with organic substances in mind and rely on persistence, bioavailability (to measure exposure) and toxicity (to measure harm). However, as naturally occurring elements metals are by definition persistent. Indeed, trace elements of copper, iron, manganese, zinc, selenium and molybdenum are required for normal development of plants and animals.

The Group also identified that there is a common misconception that any amount of metal in the environment is contamination and that the source must have been the result of human activity. These misconceptions can drive regulatory approaches. The Group highlighted the need for objective approaches to non-ferrous metals based on:

Sound science;

Risk assessment;

Risk-benefit analysis

Risk management options

These objectives had been highlighted by risk assessment exercises currently in progress. The EU's risk assessment regulation 793/93 as it has been applied to zinc was cited as an example. The need for a number of guidelines specific to metals has emerged:

- Develop and use a methodology that takes account of homeostatic regulation, natural background occurrence and variations in concentration of the metal in the environment

- Use only data for organisms originating from the habitat type for which the risk assessment is being made

- Include bioavailability in quantitative risk assessment methodologies

- Utilise up-to-date information on metal production and use patterns in exposure assessment

- Ensure testing for effects assessment takes place on species that have been kept in the appropriate abiotic conditions (in particular background concentration of the metal).

Future Action: The Risk Assessment sub group also noted the challenges in communicating the need for sound scientific risk assessment for non-ferrous metals and the outcomes of such risk assessments. A forum and process needs to be identified to meet this challenge and make governments, regulatory agencies and other stakeholders aware of the specific requirements of risk assessment for non-ferrous metals. Action is also needed to promote the message that it is not sensible to apply conclusions of a risk assessment from one area to another without considerable further work.

3. Metals in Life Cycle Studies

The Science Group also considered how to raise awareness of issues relating to life cycle assessment and metals in a way that would enhance the development of comparable and trustworthy life cycle studies.

The scientific community has realised that there is a need for holistic approaches that reflect the complexity of current concerns caused by today's metal consumption patterns. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is sufficiently treated in current ISO standards. In terms of the discussion on sustainable development, LCA is used as an analytical interpretation of technical inventories.

Metal LCAs face particular difficulties when developing commonly supported methodologies and are complicated by:

Different deposit locations;

Differing physical, chemical and mechanical properties;

Differing recycling potential;

Existing subjective perceptions.

The Group identified a number of key questions that need to be addressed if the problems relating to the methodology used in metals LCAs are to be resolved. These include:

How to define the scope of coverage (upstream, downstream, process chains);

How to address recycling;

How to portray the depletion of minerals on the one hand against the creation of stocks in the technosphere on the other;

How to assess the impact of Acid Mine Drainage

How to address the issue of metal specific occupational health issues.

Underlying all metals LCA work the Group also highlighted the need for transparent data (to ISO 14048 standard) and how to set up an efficient and trustworthy roundtable of stakeholders to analyse and discuss the metal LCA results.

Next steps: The Group suggested the development of a commonly agreed framework that aids in conducting a repeatable and trustworthy LCA on metals. It also emphasised that the LCA should concentrate on benefits as well as adverse effects using and objective methodology and scientifically validated data.

A number of LCA initiatives are underway including within the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), the European Union's DG Enterprise, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Metals Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) process sponsored by the global mining industry and within various NFMSD participating countries (such as Australia and Germany). There may be a role for the NFMSD to act as an umbrella for non-ferrous metals LCA work, and to share the expertise accumulated across the UN system.

4. Building a Metals Science Network

In April 2001, the Science Group recognised that there was a need for industry to understand on-going scientific activity in government R & D establishments and academia. Equally, academia needed to understand better the main areas of concern of industry. The Group suggested that a common Metals Science Network would help to bridge this information gap and that it should be Internet accessible and in database form to ensure maximum transparency.

Science-related databases are already maintained by industry federations such as the International Copper Association and the International Lead Zinc Research Organisation. The Group recommended that the industry federations pool this information resource following a simple initial model that could be expanded over time. The model will include, inter alia:

Recognised non-ferrous metals scientists;

Contact details;

Area of research specialisation;

Reference to recent scientific work that has been published;

Facility for the database to grow organically.

Next Steps: It is suggested that delegates discuss the range of activities covered by the Network and its content. Work is now needed to expand the coverage of metals included in the Network database (by extending to metals that have not participated in the NFMSD process - such as aluminium). A permanent and visible home for the Metals Science Network database on the Internet also needs to be identified and implemented. It is suggested that delegates discuss how best this information resource can be used.

International Copper Study Group International Lead and Zinc Study Group International Nickel Study Group