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Hazardous chemicals a top priority for global environment

Geneva/Nairobi, 27 March 1998 - Just days after finalizing the text of the so-called PIC Convention regulating international trade in hazardous chemicals, governments have decided to meet again in Montreal on 29 June to launch talks on a second treaty that will minimize the release of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as DDT and PCBs into the environment.

"Thousands of people are killed or seriously poisoned by toxic pesticides and chemicals every year," said Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "The newly agreed PIC treaty will provide a first line of defense against future tragedies by preventing unwanted imports of dangerous chemicals, particularly in developing countries. The future POPs treaty will build on this accomplishment by reducing or eliminating releases and emissions of hazardous chemicals into the global environment," he said.

Hazardous chemicals were the original inspiration of the modern environmental movement, starting with Rachel Carson's 1962 classic "Silent Spring". In response, many countries developed extensive regulatory controls at the national level. But because chemicals circulate globally - whether through trade or naturally via air, water, and animals - no country acting alone can protect its citizens or environment from risk. Concerted international action is needed.

"In recent years, scientists have learned a great deal more about the long-term effects that low dosages of certain chemicals can have," said Mr. Toepfer. "We now understand that in addition to the deaths and acute effects caused by direct and immediate contact, POPs and other chemicals persist for years at background levels that can cause long-term damage to human health and the environment. There is also evidence that these substances travel to remote areas, so that international borders do not offer any protection to anyone."

Another reason for the urgency is the accumulation of unwanted and obsolete stockpiles of pesticides and toxic chemicals, particularly in developing countries. Dump sites and toxic drums from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s are now decaying and leaching chemicals into the soil and thus poisoning water resources, wildlife, and people. A great deal of infrastructure and equipment such as electrical transformers and capacitors are also at or near the end of their useful lives and are leaking PCBs and other dangerous chemicals.

Responding to these growing international threats, 95 governments have finalized the text of the Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Negotiated under the auspices of UNEP and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Convention will establish an international alert list and help developing countries obtain the information they need to protect themselves.

It is based on the principle of Prior Informed Consent, or PIC, which states that exports of dangerous substances should not proceed unless explicitly agreed by the importing country. The exporting country is notified about the products the importing country no longer wants to receive, and it works with its chemicals industries to ensure that illegal imports do not occur. Decisions must be trade neutral - that is, if a country does not wish to accept an import, it must not produce the chemical domestically or import it from non-Parties. The treaty also contains provisions for the safe labeling of toxics in the event of export.

At first the treaty will apply to around 27 chemicals, with potentially hundreds more qualifying on the basis of future decisions by the Parties. Governments have asked that the Convention commitments be carried out on a voluntary basis immediately after the Diplomatic Conference in Rotterdam next September, where the Convention will be formally adopted and opened for signature by ministers and other senior officials.

Meanwhile, the June/July talks in Montreal will initiate work on a second treaty that will focus on the release and emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which include some of the most toxic chemicals ever developed. The talks will start with a list of 12 POPs: aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, endrin, furans, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, PCBs, and toxaphene; more will be added later. These negotiations, also under the auspices of UNEP, are to be completed by the year 2000.

POPs remain in the environment and circulate globally through the "grasshopper effect". POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated (and often seasonal) process of release, deposit, release, deposit, be transported to regions far away from their original source. This is why POPs can be found in people and animals living in the Arctic, thousands of kilometers from any major POPs source.

POPs are also transported via living organisms through a process known as bioaccumulation. POPs are not soluble in water but are readily absorbed in fatty tissue, where concentrations can become magnified by up to 70,000 times the background levels. Fish, predatory birds, mammals, and humans are high up the food chain and so absorb the greatest concentrations. When they travel, the POPs travel with them.

Evidence about the likely health effects of POPs is steadily growing. Effects can include cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, and diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems and the immune system. Reproductive disorders are thought to result from chemicals that function as "endocrine disrupters". Interference with the development and the immunological system of children is of particular concern.

With world-wide sales of some $1.5 trillion annually, the chemicals industry is a vital part of the modern industrial economy, providing a range of goods and services essential to our lifestyle. The number of different chemicals in production is on the rise, and estimates of the chemicals currently on the market vary widely, from 20,000 to as many as 70,000. Annual production levels are some 400 million tons (1995 figures). Clearly, the dramatic growth in both the quantities and the variety of substances being released into the environment increases the potential for damaging human health and the environment.

Additional data and documents are available via the Internet at

For more information or to arrange interviews, contact:

Gertrud Attar in Geneva at (41-22)-9178234

or Michael Williams at 9178242, fax 7973464.

UNEP News Release 1998/13

Robert G. Bisset
Media and Communications Officer
UNEP, P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel. +254-2-623084, Fax. +254-2-623692

Tuesday 07 Apr 1998
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