Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary
General and Executive Director, UNEP

For the formidable Sheila Watt-Cloutier, names like polychlorinated biphenyls, heptachlor and toxaphene are not obscure words found only in the pages of a science dictionary. They are modern-day demons which threaten not only the health but very foundation of the Arctic society and peoples she represents.

Manufactured and used hundreds, often thousands of miles away, these toxic substances stream into the Arctic on the winds and fall from the sky, contaminating the food chain by building up in the fats of the animals from which polar people gain their sustenance.

Health and survival
As Ms Watt-Cloutier, Vice-President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, has so often reminded me: ‘As a result of eating traditional “country food”, many of these persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are passed to children through the placenta and breast milk. Fundamentally this is an issue of public health and cultural survival. If we cannot eat our traditional food, our way of life will surely vanish.’

These persistent chemicals also threaten wildlife. Studies carried out by the Norwegian Polar Institute in Svalbard, for example, have found a significant number of sex-changed polar bear cubs – a phenomenon linked with this group of chemicals.

Thankfully, the world has heeded the calls of crusaders like Ms Watt-Cloutier and been inspired by her eloquence. The brokering and signing of the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which initially tackles 12 of these chemicals, has been as much a victory for people like her as for UNEP.

A step forward
We need 50 countries to ratify the Convention for it to come into force. I call on governments to make this happen as an important step forward for peoples and wildlife in the Arctic and across the world.

We know that many substances produced by the pharmaceutical, petrochemical and related industries have been life-enhancing and have a rightful role in the modern world – from agriculture to medicine. We are not anti-chemical at UNEP.

But we must be wise, careful and prudent about balancing the economic and social benefits of individual chemicals with their health and environmental risks – and realize that some of the alternatives may also have consequences.

In agriculture there is an ongoing, heated debate about the best way forward. Some favour a switch to organic, chemical-free production. Some companies and scientists are convinced that genetically modified crops could dramatically reduce the levels of pesticides and herbicides used.

Here again we must proceed cautiously, with the needs of the developing countries given equal status to those of the developed world.

At UNEP, working with the Global Environment Facility, we have launched a $38 million programme called the Global Biosafety Project. This will build capacities in up to 100 developing nations to help them gain the legal and scientific skills to evaluate genetically modified crops so they can decide whether they are right or wrong for their countries.

Health and safety standards in respect of chemicals in the richer parts of the globe must also become commonplace in the poorer ones. We are delighted to be working with partners such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on a new initiative. One of its goals is to reduce the stockpiles of banned, restricted and obsolete chemicals, many kept in leaky, dangerous containers which present real risks to the health of local people and water supplies on continents like Africa.

Lead in petrol is another example of the world’s two-tier system. In most, if not all developed countries, lead has been phased out after studies linked it with intellectual damage in children. But it remains ubiquitous in many developing ones.

New initiatives
I was delighted when our Governing Council, meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, last February agreed that UNEP should spearhead new initiatives to tackle lead in petrol and to assess the global impacts of mercury on health and the environment. We hope to review progress on these issues, as well as other chemically related ones, at our Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Cartagena, Columbia


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
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals