27 April 2005 As part of a United Nations-backed effort to rid the planet of some of the worst pollutants tied to cancer, birth defects and immune system damage, 800 government officials and observers from 130 countries will gather next week in Uruguay for the first meeting of a treaty banning the world’s most dangerous pesticides and chemicals.
The UN-backed Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which entered into force on 17 May 2004, targets 12 hazardous pesticides and industrial chemicals, and a key task of the five-day conference, known formally as the First Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention, is to establish a process for evaluating future candidates to add to the initial list.
“The Stockholm Convention will save lives and protect the natural environment – particularly in the poorest communities and countries,” said Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), under whose auspices the Convention was adopted in 2001.
“Eliminating POPs, however, will cost billions of dollars and require countries to adopt new methods and technologies to replace these toxic substances. The hard work has only just begun,” he said of next week’s gathering in Punta del Este.
Every human in the world carries in his or her body traces of POPs, which circulate globally through a process known as the “grasshopper effect” and include such chemicals as dioxins, furans, DDT and PCBs, agents that that can kill people, damage the nervous and immune systems, cause cancer and reproductive disorders and interfere with normal infant and child development.
POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated process of evaporation and deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source. Though not soluble in water, they are readily absorbed in fatty tissue, where concentrations can become magnified by up to 70,000 times background levels. Fish, predatory birds and mammals in the food chain absorb them. When they travel, POPs go with them.
One of the main challenges to meeting the Convention’s goal involves minimizing and eliminating releases of dioxins and furans, by-products of combustion and industrial processes, which will require expensive new technologies. The meeting aims to advance this with Guidelines on Best Available Techniques and Environmental Practices.
Also high on the agenda is the phasing out of DDT without undermining the fight against malaria, a major killer in many tropical regions. Until safe and affordable alternatives are in place, governments can continue using DDT, and the conference will evaluate the continued need and consider next steps.
Alternatives also need to be developed to combating termites, which cause billions of dollars in economic damage, and the meeting will consider procedures for handling future requests by governments for exemptions enabling them to continue using three POPs termiticides.
Another major challenge involves cleaning up polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) from ageing equipment. PCBs have been used in electrical transformers and other equipment for decades, and must be replaced over the next 20 years. But most developing countries currently lack facilities, funds and expertise to do so.
The 12 POPs include nine pesticides (aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene); two industrial chemicals (PCBs as well as hexachlorobenzene, also used as a pesticide); and unintentional by-products, most importantly dioxins and furans.