Toxic Legacy Rests With POPs Treaty Negotiators

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, December 4, 2000 (ENS) - Delegates from more than 120 countries are poised to finally agree on a legally binding global treaty to reduce or eliminate 12 persistant organic pollutants.

Persistant organic pollutants (POPs) harm the environment and endanger human health. Children are especially at risk.

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Inuit women and children may have higher than normal blood levels of persistent organic chemicals. (Photo courtesy the North-West Company)
The 12 consist of the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene; the industrial chemicals PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and hexachlorobenzene, which is also a pesticide; and dioxins and furans, which are the unwanted byproducts of combustion and industrial processes.

These pollutants are toxic, long lasting, and travel in multiple cycles of evaporation, transported by air and condensation to remote areas far from the source of release.

They accumulate in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated higher in the food chain over time. They present a special risk to children because they are conveyed through the placenta and in breastmilk, and can have a critical effect on the foetus and infant whose systems are at key stages of development.

In the Arctic, the indigenous Inuit people rely on fatty foods such as whale, seal, and char, which are high in POPs. Inuit mothers typically have high levels in breastmilk, five times the levels in mothers in industrialized countries.

Tens of thousands of obsolete pesticide stocks are stored in Africa and throughout the developing world, often in inadequate or even dangerous conditions. About 30 percent of these stocks are POPs, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which oversees this week's negotiations formally known as the Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC 5).

Production of some POPs has already stopped but their legacy remains a problem. For example, an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of PCBs were produced commercially for use in electrical equipment, as coolants in transformers and dielectrics in capacitors.

An estimated 100,000 tonnes are in stocks awaiting final disposal, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more are still in use and may need to be identified and disposed of.

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UNEP executive director, Klaus Topefer. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
"Toxic and very long lasting, persistent organic pollutants endanger the well being of our planet and all living beings," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director. "The global treaty approaching completion in December is the necessary global defence against these poisons."

"Only decades ago, most of the 12 POPs targeted for action under the treaty being negotiated did not exist, and now they are in the air, water, soil around the planet - and in us all, and they last for generations.

"Countries are coming to the negotiating table in South Africa to reach agreement for the sake of people living today and generations to come. I believe they will meet this challenge."

This week's meeting is the last of five scheduled negotiating sessions, which began in Montreal and continued in Nairobi, Geneva, and Bonn. UNEP set up the framework for a POPs treaty in 1997 with a deadline of 2000.

Discussion will focus on limitations on manufacture and use of POPs, national action plans, funding, technical assistance, exemptions for DDT, which is used to combat malaria, and stockpiles of obsolete or unwanted pesticides. Negotiators hope to establish criteria identifying other POPs for elimination.

If all sides agree this week, a diplomatic conference to sign the treaty will take place in Stockholm in May 2001, followed by ratification and implementation.

The United States chief negotiator said INC 5 must complement existing waste treaties, such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

"We do not want to create a new waste regime" in the POPs treaty, said Brooks Yeager, deputy assistant secretary of state for the environment.

"But, we recognize that POPs are special, requiring extra care." The negotiations will need to define how to provide for that "extra care" in the treaty, he said.

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The pesticide DDT was largely responsible for near elimination of the bald eagle in the lower 48 States of the U.S. But its use in the developing world in the fight against malaria may exempt it from a total ban. (Photo courtesy WWF/Chris Martin Bahr)
The Basel pact, adopted in 1989, is designed to reduce cross border movements of hazardous waste, improve controls on the movement of waste, prevent illegal traffic, and ensure that waste is disposed of as close as possible to its source.

The U.S. signed the Basel Convention in 1989, and the Senate provided its consent to ratification in 1992. But before the U.S. can formally ratify the convention, Congress must pass and the president must sign legislation implementing the agreement's requirements.

As ever, a host of non-governmental organizations will be scrutinizing this week's talks. One such group was launched only last week.

Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) met near Johannesburg for the first time last week. GAIA is a coalition of more than 70 grassroots environmental and public health activists from 23 countries.

It is focused on halting incineration of wastes and promoting alternatives that protect the environment and public health.

"All over the world, from North America to Europe, Africa and Asia, people are fighting incineration as a threat to the public health of current populations and future generations," said GAIA organizer Ann Leonard.

"GAIA was created both to support local incinerator battles, and to create a strong international force against the use of this dangerous technology."

POPs such as dioxins and furans are among the toxic emissions that can come from incineration of municipal, medical and hazardous waste. Exposure to such emissions can result in increased risks of cancer, reproductive disorders, birth defects and immune system dysfunction.

Despite advances in non-incineration technology, many countries continue to use incinerators, says GAIA.

"In India, incinerators are being operated in almost all the cities and despite indisputable evidence of the dangers posed by these facilities," said Deepika D'Souza of Mumbai Medwaste Action Group, part of the GAIA coalition.

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American alligator eating fish in the southern U.S. POPs accumulate in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated higher in the food chain over time. (Photo courtesy WWF/Martin Harvey)
"GAIA calls on the Indian government to immediately halt plans for these incinerators, and allow for an open, transparent public process by which alternative waste treatment options can be determined."

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) stressed that for any treaty to work, elimination, not management, of chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins must be a central goal, combined with financial and technical help for developing nations. DDT, it said, should remain an exception because of its ability to fight malaria.

"This is a chance for negotiators to make a stand against toxic chemical contamination and complete the first major environmental treaty of the new millennium," said Clifton Curtis, director of WWF's Global Toxic Chemicals Initiative.

The group called for adoption of the "Precautionary Principle." The precautionary principle states that action should be taken against a chemical when there is sufficient evidence to prove that it threatens human and animal health, even in the absence of conclusive evidence.

To back up its argument, WWF today released a new map demonstrating POPs' global threat and reach. The Toxic Hot Spots map uses ten of the hundreds of examples of toxic contamination around the world to represent the pervasive nature of POPs.

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A bird with a crossed bill as a result of exposure to POPs. (Photo courtesy WWF)
From PCB contaminated fish in the Great Lakes to waste incineration and dioxin emissions in South Africa, every region of the world is affected by POPs. WWF said the map underlines that our understanding of the dangers from exposure to POPs is superficial and that many of the effects will be felt by future generations.

WWF's director general Claude Martin used INC 5 to call for tougher restrictions on ships carrying hazardous cargo. On October 31, the Ievoli Sun sank with 6,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals on board off the island of Alderney in the English Channel.

Less than a year before, the fuel tanker Erika sank in the same narrow seaway and seriously polluted hundreds of miles of the French coast.

"It is surely self evident, especially in the light of these two recent cases, that there is an urgent need for far higher standards of safety in transportation by sea," said Martin.

"We have the mechanism to introduce and enforce such standards through the International Maritime Organization: what appears to have been missing so far is the will, among the world's leading shipping nations."

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Children who died in the cloud of toxic gas released from Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India. (Photo courtesy City of Bhopal)
Martin said that with a proper POPs treaty, another maritime accident might be considerably less severe because the ship's cargo would not be so deadly.

Greenpeace activists formed a "Hall of Shame" at the entrance of the INC 5 venue, holding images of people around the world whose health and environment is affected by POPs. The group reminded delegates of the Bhopal disaster, which shocked the world 16 years ago, yesterday. Toxic gases released from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India killed at least 6,000 people in 1984.