The WHO Collaborating Centre for Chemical Incidents (WHO-CC) was established in 1993 as a collaboration between the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC), the section of Pharmacology, Therapeutics and Toxicology and the Department of Epidemiology, Statistics and Public Health, both part of Cardiff University. It was established to support the work of the WHO's International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS).
IPCS was itself created in 1980 by WHO, the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its prime function is assess the risks posed to human health by exposure to chemicals in the environment, covering industrial production, extraction and synthesis, transport, use and disposal.
The WHO-CC was established to support IPCS in the field of chemical incident and event management, influencing and co-ordinating international activities to ensure the safe use of chemicals.
In 2003, the WHO-CC became part of the Chemical Hazards and Poisons Division of the HPA and is now a part of the Centre for Radiation, Chemicals and Environmental Hazards and based at UWIC in Cardiff.
The WHO-CC was re-designated by WHO in 2009.
Terms of Reference
The terms of reference for the WHO-CC are:
- To develop timely support and expert advice to WHO on public health consequences of chemical emergencies, including those attibuted to deliberate release.
- To contribute to the development of WHO capacities in order to strengthen international public health response and follow up to chemical incidents and emergencies, in accordance with the International Health Regulations (IHR;2007).
- To seek funding and contribute to the development of training materials and methods in order to enhance planning, preparedness and follow up for the public health management of chemical incidents.
- To seek funding to develop and host training courses, workshops and seminars and for developing programmes for the public health management of chemical incidents, in particular the development of a training facility for the international public health response to emergencies.
- To develop guidance, principles and procedures for the public health management of chemical incidents.
- To investigate methodologies for the establishment of early detection and alert and follow up of chemical incidents of international concern.
Structure and Function
The WHO-CC operates at 3 distinct levels, reflecting its terms of reference:
- Strategic level - The WHO-CC collaborates with international organizations, identifying and highlighting current and future risks and trends to enable strategies to be put in place for enhancing public health planning and preparedness for exposure to environmental chemicals. This strategy comprises alert, detection and surveillance of chemical incidents, risk assessment, training and enhancing capacity and resilience. The strategic level blends expertise in risk assessment and management, environmental health, public health, toxicology and epidemiology through its links with UWIC ( www3.uwic.ac.uk/), Cardiff University (www.Cardiff.ac.uk) and Newcastle University’s Medical Toxicology Centre (www.ncl.ac.uk/mtc/about/). The WHO-CC also represents the UK at G7 + Mexico’s Global Health Security Action Group, advising to strengthen health planning and preparedness to chemical threats (www.Ghsi.ca/english/index.asp).
- Operational level - the WHO-CC provides timely advice and support through WHO on the public health implications of exposure to environmental chemicals following acute incidents. Some key examples are:
- Somalia 2003 - 2004. Support to WHO Mission concerning the rural dumping of pesticides and community exposure and subsequent reporting of symptoms. Bio-monitoring was undertaken by the Medical Toxicology Centre at the University of Newcastle.
- Songhua River, Harbin, China 2005. Large scale benzene pollution of the river. The WHO CC provided rapid toxicological expertise on potential health consequences of exposures via multiple pathways including information on benzene and other hydrocarbons. In addition, guidance was given for effective and efficient public health management of the incident.
- Ivory Coast 2006. An international request for assistance from WHO was received following the discharge of toxic material which was reported to have caused 2 fatalities, several casualties and widespread environmental contamination. Advice and support was provided, including toxicological and public health guidance on the hazards found including hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans and persistent organ-chlorines.
- Democratic Republic of Congo 2006. Analysis of polluted water samples and advice proffered on the management of the incident.
- East Timor 2007. Spillage of hydrochloric acid (HCl) resulted in a plume and the potential exposure of a nearby community of 300 families. Timely advice on the public health management of the incident including environmental sampling and clinical toxicological support, in conjunction with the New Zealand National Poisons Centre [external link]
- Ukraine July 2007. A train carrying phosphorus derailed causing a fire, resulting in the release of a toxic plume. Communities were evacuated from their homes and at least 20 people hospitalized. Toxicological advice and support were provided through the European Commission [external link].
- Hungary 2010 [External PDF] Following the release of alkaline sludge in Kolontar, Devecser and Somlóvásárhely in western Hungary in September 2010, the WHO-CC formed part of an international delegation co-ordinated by WHO-Euro [external link] that assessed the environmental and public health risks posed by the incident. Nine people died and over 150 injured, with a further 2,000 evacuated.
- Research and Development - the Centre facilitates and undertakes research and development in collaboration with national and international partners in several key areas in the public health planning and preparedness for chemical incidents.
Some key examples: