Getting on top of the POPs

John Buccini describes the global action taken to control and phase out what are often seen as the most toxic chemicals ever produced

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), whether produced by natural or anthropogenic processes, have a particular combination of physical and chemical properties that ensure that, once they have been released into the environment, they remain intact for exceptionally long periods. They are transported by air and water, and so are distributed widely across the globe – even to regions where they have never been used. They accumulate in living organisms – including humans – and so are found at greater concentrations at higher levels of the food chain.

Both humans and wildlife have been exposed to POPs around the world for generations. This has resulted in a wide range of both acute and chronic toxic effects, including cancer and effects on reproduction. The risks they pose have caused increasing concern in recent decades. This has resulted in action being taken at national, regional and global levels to protect human health and the environment from what many regard as the most toxic chemicals ever produced.

In February 1997, UNEP’s Governing Council concluded that sufficient scientific information was available to warrant taking immediate international action on POPs. It adopted Decision 19/13C which urged governments to take action on them – and UNEP to undertake several supporting activities. It also called for the development of an international legally binding instrument on POPs by the year 2000. The World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly endorsed these outcomes in May 1997.

A series of eight regional and subregional workshops were held in 1997-1998 to prepare countries for negotiations on a POPs Convention and to support national and regional actions on the chemicals. Representatives of governments and other stakeholders from 138 countries attended these workshops before the negotiations began, under the auspices of UNEP, in Montreal in June 1998. The intergovernmental negotiations were concluded in Johannesburg on 10 December 2000, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was adopted on 22 May 2001. The treaty is widely supported by countries from all regions of the world: since it was opened for signature the following day, 105 countries and the European Union have signed it.

Comprehensive provisions
The goal of the Convention is to protect human health and the environment from the generation, use and/or release of POPs. It includes comprehensive provisions to address the risks posed by an initial group of 12 POPs (aldrin, chlordane, polychlorinated dioxins and furans, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and toxaphene). It will require actions to be taken to reduce or eliminate the production, use and/or release of POPs – whether produced intentionally or unintentionally – and to prevent the introduction of new ones into commerce.

Trade in intentionally produced POPs and POP wastes will be restricted, and stockpiles and wastes containing or contaminated by the chemicals must be stored, handled and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Additional POPs will be added to the Convention in the future by applying provisions that include scientific criteria and a specified process. Implementing the Convention will have wide-ranging impacts on all countries and will require numerous changes in products, practices and processes. These are exemplified by those that will be required for PCBs, DDT and unintentionally produced byproducts such as polychlorinated dioxins and furans.
Implementing the Convention will have wide-ranging impacts on all countries
PCBs have been used since the 1930s in a wide range of applications, including in electrical equipment and transmission systems (such as transformers or capacitors). Large amounts are still in use in these ways in many countries. PCB-containing materials will have to be inventoried, removed from service by 2025 and properly stored, and then disposed of in an environmentally sound manner by 2028. Disposing of PCB materials will include dealing with thousands of pieces of equipment and involve the management of large volumes of hazardous wastes. New electrical equipment using alternative materials will be needed. This programme can be expected to present both technical and financial challenges.

Restrictions on DDT
At the same time, the Convention will restrict the production and use of DDT to management programmes for disease vectors. At present, the pesticide is still needed in such programmes as those used to control malaria in about 25 countries, including some of the world’s least developed ones. However the ultimate goal – recognizing that the continued use of DDT is not a sustainable practice – is to phase out its use altogether when practical and economically feasible alternative practices, products and processes become available. All Parties to the Convention are committed to developing alternatives to the pesticide. The situation will be reviewed within one year of the Convention entering into force, and every three years thereafter, to see when DDT production and use may be eliminated.

Considerable research and development efforts by all the world’s countries will be needed if suitable alternatives are to be developed and implemented in a timely way.

Developing strategies
Polychlorinated dioxins and furans are unintentionally produced as byproducts in chemical and combustion processes. They are found in some chemical products and in emissions from many sources of combustion. These POPs are highly toxic at very low levels, and are often called the most toxic environmental pollutants yet known. Countries will be required to develop action plans to inform the public of the need for, and nature of, required actions; to develop and implement a strategy to address industrial sources of releases (metal processing, power generation, waste disposal practices such as incineration); and to evaluate progress in meeting the goal of reducing, with a view to eliminating, their release to the environment. This is a tall order that will impact industrial and other activities in developed and developing countries alike.

The interest generated in POPs issues during the development of the Convention has resulted in the public, public interest groups, industry, governments and regional and global intergovernmental organizations taking – and continuing to take – action to reduce the generation, use and/or release of the substances. Over the past four years UNEP Chemicals has conducted almost a hundred workshops to raise awareness of POPs problems and to increase the capacity of governments and other stakeholders to take action to reduce the threats they pose. UNEP maintains a Master List of ongoing actions by these groups: the most recent version (December 2000) indicates that over 108 countries and many intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have undertaken them. The formation of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) – which now includes over 400 environmental NGOs committed to taking action on the chemicals – is a significant indication of the level of interest.

Towards ratification
Fifty countries must ratify the Convention for it to enter into force: Canada and Fiji have already done so. It is well recognized that technical and financial assistance will be needed to enable developing countries and countries with economies in transition to meet the Convention’s ratification requirements and to undertake the actions that will be required of all Parties. Financial and technical support will be needed from developed countries, intergovernmental organizations and development agencies over the coming years to sustain the effort required to reduce and/or eliminate the risks posed by these toxic and pervasive substances.

UNEP and the Global Environment Facility recently initiated a series of regional and subregional workshops to prepare developing countries and countries with economies in transition to develop national implementation plans in support of the Convention’s ratification and early entry into force. Some aspects of POPs are also dealt with in the Rotterdam and Basel Conventions, so information is provided on the interplay between the three Conventions. These workshops will serve as a catalyst for taking action on POPs and make possible the early entry into force of the Convention.

Many far-reaching impacts will result from actions taken by governments, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs well before the Stockholm Convention is ratified and enters into force. Some changes have already begun to be made. Many more will follow as the global community prepares itself to meet the challenges necessary to implement the Convention fully. When the Convention was adopted, it was also agreed that the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee would continue to meet annually. This would maintain the momentum built up during the negotiations, assist countries in their ratification efforts, and ensure a ‘quick start’ at the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties following entry into force of the Convention. The prognosis for the future is most encouraging, as all stakeholders aggressively pursue action on POPs

Dr. John Buccini is Chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee established by UNEP to negotiate a global POPs Convention.

PHOTOGRAPH: Roberto Gomes/UNEP/Topham

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 Hazardous Waste 1999
Issue on Chemicals 1997
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals