Ubiquitous and Dangerous

 
Clifton Curtis and Tina Skaar describe the impacts of toxic chemicals on people and wildlife and the international action to control them

Over the last 50 years, evidence has mounted on the threat of synthetic chemicals to the health and well-being of wildlife and humans alike. Wherever scientists look – in the tropics, marine systems, industrial regions, the Arctic – they find the impact of toxic chemicals. No person, region or species can escape the reach of these insidious pollutants.

Whether they are pesticides like chlordane, atrazine and endosolfan, industrial chemicals like poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the phthalates used in plastics, or byproducts such as dioxins and furans, chemicals are a part of our lives – in more ways than one. Ironically, chemicals that were developed to control disease, increase food production, and improve our standard of living are a threat to biodiversity and human health.

Policy and programmatic initiatives – such as the recently concluded global treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), legislative proposals by the European Union (EU) to reform its chemicals policies, the UNEP Governing Council’s consideration of a global chemicals strategy and the Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP) – are vital components of a more realistic chemicals framework. A more rigorous, coherent and environmentally sound chemicals management system is needed to protect wildlife and people at local, national and international levels alike.

Approximately 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into the environment over the last 50 years, but virtually none have been tested for the full range of reproductive, neurological or endocrine effects. Research and regulation of synthetic chemicals has historically focused on the dangers of genetic mutation, cancers and gross birth defects. Increasingly, however, scientists have been investigating a hazard known as ‘endocrine disruption’.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with the activity of hormones within the body. Many manufactured chemicals mimic natural hormones and send false messages. Other synthetic compounds block the messages and prevent true ones from getting through. Whatever the mechanism, the bottom line is the same: any chemical that interferes directly or indirectly with hormones can scramble vital messages, derail development and undermine health.

An extensive body of evidence supports the case against endocrine-disrupting chemicals – wildlife studies, laboratory experiments and mechanistic investigations at the molecular and cellular level. Many scientists have concluded that synthetic compounds have already damaged many wildlife populations by causing thyroid dysfunction, decreased fertility, decreased hatching success, behavioural abnormalities, feminization and demasculinization in males and compromised immune systems.

Hormone-disrupting contaminants may be hazardous at extremely low doses and pose an even greater danger to the developing foetus in the womb. Because hormones are so important in early development, synthetic chemicals that disrupt such internal messages pose a particular hazard to the unborn. During prenatal life, endocrine disruptors may alter development of the body, including the brain, and undermine the ability to learn, to fight off disease and to reproduce.

A step forward
Some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals are currently being phased out and banned under the new Stockholm POPs Convention, finalized in May 2001. POPs are toxic substances composed of organic (carbon-based) chemical compounds and mixtures. They include industrial chemicals like PCBs and pesticides such as DDT. They are primarily products and byproducts of industrial processes, chemical manufacturing and the resulting wastes. All of the 12 POPs targeted in the treaty are endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Today, POPs are found almost everywhere – in our food, soil, air and water. Wildlife and humans around the world carry amounts in their bodies that are at or near levels that can cause injury. These pollutants are highly stable compounds that can accumulate and remain in the environment or in body tissue for years or decades before breaking down. They can also travel through air and water to regions far from their original source. POPs tend to bioaccumulate, building up in the fatty tissue of organisms and dramatically increasing in concentration as they move up the food chain.

Several international initiatives provide special opportunities to address toxic chemicals in a responsible way. Corresponding national efforts are advancing in a number of countries as part of the necessary matrix of policies and programmes, though the local, national and international actions taken fall short of what is required.
Any chemical that interferes with hormones can scramble vital messages, derail development and undermine health
The new Stockholm POPs Convention is designed to eliminate or severely restrict the production and use of 12 POPs (with provisions to include additional POPs in the future); ensure environmentally sound management and chemical transformation of POPs waste; and prevent the emergence of new chemicals with similar characteristics. Key provisions include the embracing of precaution in the face of uncertainty; funding commitments by developed countries to ensure that all nations can participate; an emphasis on preventing new POPs from entering the stream of commerce; and a call for substitute products and processes rather than relying on scrubbers and filters.

WWF and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the public and environmental health arena are urging governments to ratify the POPs treaty, and three other chemicals-related treaties, before the meeting of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in late August/early September 2002. (The three other treaties are the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure, which addresses controls on trade in toxic chemicals and the accumulations of pesticide stockpiles; the Basel Convention and Ban Amendment, which focuses on trafficking of hazardous wastes; and the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention, which addresses the dumping and incineration of hazardous materials at sea.) The Johannesburg Summit provides governments a prime-time opportunity to announce their ratifications of this critical package.

The EU is currently the most progressive international proponent of environmentally sound chemicals management. The European Commission’s White Paper, Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy, represents a responsible step towards ensuring that the chemical industry provides at least some hazard data on all chemicals produced in quantities over 1 tonne. Until now this has not been the case. New and existing chemicals will all be tested and subject to the same regime under a ‘stepped’ timeframe for implementation.

Unfortunately the European Commission’s current proposal to bring substances of very high concern under an authorization scheme only addresses un-POPs-like substances and those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic. Several improvements are needed as legislative proposals are developed during 2002. WWF considers that the range of chemicals included for authorization should be broadened, and that authorizations should only be granted if there is a real need for the chemical and no safer alternatives exist. Even though the proposed EU system suggests that tight controls will be exercised over the worst chemicals, environmental groups still have grave concerns about the bulk of chemicals, where risk assessment will be left up to industry. WWF and other groups are also campaigning for public access to all safety data that is brought forward and for recognition of the right to know product constituents – at least on a qualitative basis.

UNEP’s Governing Council will review a report in February 2002 on the possible need for a ‘strategic approach to international chemicals management’. It is anticipated that ministers and other participants will agree actions to further advance the strategic approach. This includes the possibility that participants at the World Summit on Sustainable Development will be called upon to mandate relevant international agencies and other stakeholders to develop a global chemical strategy that provides a policy and procedural framework for addressing issues of international concern.
Authorizations should only be granted if there is a real need for the chemical
Comments on particular elements of the strategy are premature at this stage, but WWF welcomes inclusion of the two key ‘principles’ in UNEP’s report. First, the strategic approach needs to be developed in an ‘open, transparent and inclusive manner’ with the full range of interested stakeholders. Second, the approach should ‘bolster’ (not override) contributions already being made by various bodies, helping to mainstream existing and evolving chemical safety objectives: sustainable development and capacity-building will be key drivers in such efforts. If these principles are honoured, the likelihood of achieving a meaningful strategic approach to environmentally sound chemicals management will be greatly enhanced.

An innovative, on-the-ground partnership to address threats from obsolete pesticide stockpiles in Africa is gaining momentum. The WWF-initiated ASP combines the resources and talents of intergovernmental organizations, international aid agencies, environmental NGOs and the pesticide industry. Designed to clean up obsolete pesticide stockpiles throughout Africa, combined with capacity-building and measures to prevent future recurrence of the problem, the project’s overall cost is estimated at $250 million over 10-15 years. Recent funding commitments by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank, and contributions of time/expenses from WWF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, UNEP, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, African Unity, Economic Commission for Africa, and other participants, will enable development of a comprehensive Strategic Partnership during 2002. The partners hope to present the ASP to the GEF Council in the latter half of 2002 for its approval and ongoing financial support, in combination with funding from government aid agencies, World Bank trust funds and other sources.

The international community has made significant progress in addressing toxic chemicals issues, but much more needs to be done to protect life on Earth from these dangerous compounds. The pervasive and global nature of the threats underscores the urgency for continued and heightened action to ensure the environmentally sound management of chemicals


Clifton Curtis is Director and Tina Skaar is Communications Officer of the WWF Global Toxics Programme.

PHOTOGRAPH: Sharina Hicks/UNEP/Topham


Toxic threats to species

  • Whales in the world’s oceans carry PCBs and other contaminants at concentrations which cause development defects in humans.

  • Marine gastropods (whelks and periwinkles) suffer sex determination defects due to tributyltin leaching from antifouling paints on ships’ hulls.

  • Albatrosses nesting on remote Midway Island in the Northern Pacific are carrying levels of PCBs, DDT, dioxins and furans that have been shown to be hazardous to bird species in the industrialized Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.

  • Male fish in rivers throughout the United Kingdom are experiencing feminization at levels of contamination commonly found in the UK environment.

  • Alligators in Florida’s lakes suffer from reproductive problems that appear to be associated with chronic chemical contamination.

  • The immune system of Arctic polar bears may be compromised due to PCB exposure. PCBs may also be linked to reproductive problems and abnormal genitalia among female bears in Norway’s Svalbard region.



This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof


Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Chemicals 1997, including:
Theo Colborn: Restoring children's birthrights
Issue on 1999
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals,
Polar Regions,
Population and biodiversity