Jack Weinberg explains why persistent organic pollutants are a global problem, and describes international efforts to reduce and eliminate them

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which is likely to enter into force next year, demonstrates that the world now recognizes toxic chemical pollution as critical. Support for the Convention is both broad and deep. Civil society organizations working in the fields of public health, environment and development all over the world are enthusiastic about it, while chemical industry trade associations also count themselves as supporters.

Before and during the 1980s, scientists studying the Great Lakes of North America, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, observed health abnormalities in fish and wildlife. These included: reproductive failures and population declines; abnormally functioning thyroid glands and other hormone system dysfunctions; the feminization of males and masculinization of females; compromised immune systems; behavioural abnormalities; tumours and cancers. They also concluded that these were caused by persistent toxic chemical pollutants, widespread in these ecosystems.

Scientists and medical researchers then realized that these same toxic chemical pollutants are also found in foods that people eat, raising the important question of whether human health is also affected. Studies confirmed this was indeed the case. Many human health disorders and deficits have now been associated with exposure to these pollutants. They include: cancers and tumours; learning disorders, attention deficits and other nervous system impairments; immune system changes that may weaken a person’s ability to fight off disease; reproductive failure and declines in male births; shortened period of lactation in nursing mothers; and increased incidence of diseases such as diabetes and endometriosis (a painful and debilitating gynaecological disorder).

A new term, ‘persistent organic pollutants’ or ‘POPs’, was introduced to describe the class of chemicals causing these problems. Their signal characteristic is that they travel long distances through the air and then fall out into water systems or onto vegetation in amounts sufficient to cause harm. POPs become concentrated in fish, meat and milk – and in people who eat them. They pose a particularly serious problem in the Arctic region because they are especially concentrated in its wildlife and harm Arctic indigenous peoples who depend on it for much of their diet. The cold climate of northern regions also increases the rate at which POPs fall out.

Only small amounts of POPs have ever been produced or used in the Arctic, but the chemicals travel there from distant sources to pose their serious and well-documented threats to its peoples and to ecosystems. This ensures that people and the environment cannot be protected from POPs by local, national or regional action alone. POPs pose a global problem, and need global action – as advocates and governments from northern regions were often the first to point out.

Assessing needs
In 1995, northern governments brought the issue of POPs to UNEP’s Governing Council and secured a decision to assess the need for global action. Later that year, at the UNEP-sponsored Conference on Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, governments agreed on the need for a legally binding instrument to reduce and/or eliminate emissions and discharges of POPs.

POPs are widely produced and used elsewhere in the world. They are generated as unwanted chemical by-products in many processes, are stored as wastes and contaminate soils and sediments. They pose severe threats to local environments and cause profound health injuries to local people and workers. They are therefore a local problem as well as a global one. POPs contamination in developing countries is often poorly documented, but exposures may be as severe, or more so, than in the Arctic, and many more people may be affected.

As information about the health and environmental harm caused by POPs and other chemical pollutants became widespread and available, it fuelled already growing concerns about chemical safety in many developing countries and countries in transition. But it often proved impossible to translate growing awareness about their harmfulness into meaningful programmes. It was generally difficult to secure the resources or the political attention required for effective national and local action. The government officials, academics and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries most aware of the problem often became frustrated by their inability effectively to act on their knowledge.

Receptive audience
Though the drive to make POPs an issue of global concern was initiated in northern countries, it found a strong and receptive audience in the south. This coincided with other developments. Many government officials with responsibilities for chemicals management had long felt a lack of high-level political support. Many had also felt frustrated by the fragmentation of responsibility for chemicals management across ministries, often with poor coordination and without adequate infrastructure, resources or authority. This was discussed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and reflected in Chapter 19 of Agenda 21.
Activities that countries undertake to meet Convention obligations also provide important domestic benefits
In 1994, the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) was founded to promote implementation of Chapter 19 and to provide a forum and a voice for government officials with responsibilities for chemicals management. It became a place where officials from highly industrial countries and from developing nations came to know one another – and provided them with opportunities to begin to formulate mutual visions and strategies to enhance global chemical safety. It also became a vehicle to promote higher political status for chemical safety concerns, and to encourage better integration and efficiency in national chemicals management regimes. Its efforts helped encourage and enable some developing country officials to advance efforts to strengthen their national capacity and infrastructure for chemical safety.

In 1996, at UNEP’s invitation, IFCS formed an ad hoc working group to formulate and review recommendations for global action on POPs. This successfully built on past IFCS experience and promoted a balanced approach between northern and southern interests. It provided opportunities for full involvement both by environmental NGOs and by chemical industry trade associations. The outcome was a consensus approach and framework for creating a legally binding POPs treaty reflecting both northern and southern interests, both chemical industry and civil society concerns.

The UNEP Governing Council adopted the IFCS recommendations in 1997, providing a robust, stable and successful framework for an intergovernmental negotiating process. All interests remained engaged in this: northern and southern; industry and civil society. All remained active in raising awareness about efforts to deal with POPs. The broad and deep support for the Stockholm Convention resulted.

Mobilizing resources
The Convention explicitly acknowledges that: ’sustainable economic and social development and eradication of poverty are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties’. All its provisions take this into account. It does not create any expectation that the resources developing countries must use to meet its obligations will be diverted from their national priorities. Instead, it promises to mobilize new and additional financial resources to enable developing countries and countries in transition to meet obligations that would otherwise be beyond their capacity.

Yet, activities that countries undertake to meet Convention obligations also provide important domestic benefits. Full implementation of its provisions would protect domestic health and local environments as well as global ones. Implementing it effectively will eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the world’s environment and advance chemical safety in all countries. History will record it as a key turning point in the evolution of sustainable development and in the recognition of chemical safety as a critical global and local concern

Jack Weinberg directs the Global Chemical Safety Program of the Environmental Health Fund, a US-based NGO. He is Northern Co-Chair of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN).

PHOTOGRAPH: Leslie A. Harrison/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Chemicals and the environment, 2002
Issue on Disasters, 2001
Issue on Chemicals, 1997

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

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and atmosphere: air pollution