Press releases

Wednesday 09 May 2001

Governments Give Green Light To Phase Out Of World's Most Hazardous Chemicals

Nairobi/Geneva 9 May 2001 - An historic chemicals convention, which many scientists expect will deliver a healthier world for people and wildlife from the polar regions to sub Saharan Africa and Latin America, is set to be signed this month in Stockholm by more than 100 countries.

Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP under whose auspices the treaty was negotiated, said: "Persistent organic pollutants threaten the health and well-being of humans and wildlife in every region of the world".

"It is therefore vital that after adopting and signing the Convention in Stockholm governments follow up quickly by ratifying the treaty so it can enter into force by 2004 at the latest," he said. Fifty ratifications are required to make the agreement legally binding.

"In the meantime, work must start right away on preparing countries to take action under the treaty," said Mr. Toepfer. "By adopting strong resolutions in Stockholm for the interim period, governments will ensure an immediate start to international action against these most dangerous of chemicals."

The agreement, covering a dozen persistent organic pollutants (POPs), has been welcomed by the indigenous people of the Arctic.

The pollutants concerned, which include pesticides, industrial chemicals and hazardous by-products of combustion, are known to become concentrated in the fats of Arctic animals and to build up in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

Shelia Watt-Cloutier, Vice-President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference which represents Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Canada and Greenland/Denmark, said: "As a result of eating traditional 'country food' many POPs are passed to children through the placenta and breast milk. Fundamentally this is an issue of public health and cultural survival. If we can not eat our traditional food, our way of life will surely vanish. The Arctic is hit hard by these pollutants, but POPs are a global issue for contamination is reported on all continents".

"Thankfully the world has had a wake up call. Mothers of the world from the Arctic to tropical Africa, South America and Asia are united in supporting the global POPs convention. We are very pleased that these countries are coming together in Stockholm, Sweden, to sign this vital convention as a first step towards curbing and eradicating these hazardous substances. We call on countries to not only sign but ratify the POPs convention as soon as possible," said Ms Watt-Cloutier, whose organization is a winner of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Award.

Fernando Bejarano, director of the Red de Accion Sobre Plaguicidas y Alternativas en Mexico (Network for Action on Pesticides and their Alternatives in Mexico) also welcomed the signing of the Convention. "The Stockholm Convention is a landmark treaty for the protection of human health. It makes the Precautionary Principle a reality and future generations will thank governments for their foresight," he said.

Mr Bejarano said they were especially pleased by the provisions in the treaty to tackle dioxins and furans, two groups of pollutants produced mainly as a by-product from incinerators and other combustion processes.

"We look forward to finding innovative ways to work with our governments to implement the treaty, especially those provisions that will lead to the elimination of the industrial by-products dioxins and furans," he said.

Mr Toepfer added: "I am particularily pleased that the United States has announced that it is joining the list of over one hundred countries signing the POPs convention. This underlines that international cooperation on environmental issues is very much alive and well as we enter the new millennium," he said.

The meeting in Sweden, where countries will sign the Stockholm Convention, is to take place between the 22 and 23 of May. It follows a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, las December where the treaty's text was finalized.

The 12 initial POPs are aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated bipehnols (PCBs) hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans.

Of all the pollutants released into the environment every year by human activity, POPs are among the most dangerous. They are highly toxic, causing an array of adverse effects, notably death, disease, and birth defects, among humans and animals. Specific effects can include cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system.

These highly stable compounds can last for years or decades before breaking down. They circulate globally through a process known as the "grasshopper effect". POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated (and often seasonal) process of evaporation, deposit, evaporation, deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source.

In addition, POPs concentrate in living organisms through another process called bioaccumulation. Though not soluble in water, POPs 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. As a result of these two processes, POPs can be found in people and animals living in regions such as the Arctic, thousands of kilometers from any major POPs source.

The Stockholm Convention sets out control measures covering the production, import, export, disposal, and use of POPs. Governments are to promote the best available technologies and practices for replacing existing POPs while preventing the development of new POPs. They will draw up national legislation and develop action plans for carrying out their commitments.

While the control measures will apply to an initial list of 12 chemicals, a POPs Review Committee will consider additional candidates for the POPs list on a regular basis. This will ensure that the treaty remains dynamic and responsive to new scientific findings.

Most of the 12 chemicals are subject to an immediate ban. However, a health-related exemption has been granted for DDT, which is still needed in many countries to control malarial mosquitoes. This will permit governments to protect their citizens from malaria - a major killer in many tropical regions - until they are able to replace DDT with chemical and non-chemical alternatives that are cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Similarly, in the case of PCBs, which have been widely used in electrical transformers and other equipment, governments may maintain existing equipment in a way that prevents leaks until 2025 to give them time to arrange for PCB-free replacements. Although PCBs are no longer produced, hundreds of thousands of tons are still in use in such equipment. In addition, a number of country-specific and time-limited exemptions have been agreed for other chemicals.

Governments agree to reduce releases of furans and dioxins, which are accidental by-products and thus more difficult to control, "with the goal of their continuing minimization and, where feasible, ultimate elimination".

Other national measures required under the treaty relate to reporting, research, development, monitoring, public information and education.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to most POPs. The problem is that high costs, a lack of public awareness, and the absence of appropriate infrastructure and technology often prevent their adoption. Solutions must be tailored to the specific properties and uses of each chemical, as well as to each country's climatic and socio-economic conditions.

 

Note to journalists: The meeting will take place at the Folkets Hus, City Conference Centre, Barnhusgatan, Stockholm. A press accreditation form and hotel and meeting information is available at www.chem.unep.ch/pops/. Press conferences are scheduled for 13:15 on Tuesday, 22 May and for 13.15 on Wednesday, 23 May at Stockholm's City Conference Centre. For additional information, please contact POPs press officer Michael Williams in Geneva at 41-22-917 8242, 41-79-409-1528 (cellular), or Michael.Williams@unep.ch. In Nairobi, please contact UNEP Spokesman Tore Brevik at 254-2-623292, fax: 254-2-623692, or cpiinfo@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, Media Officer, at

254-2-623084, fax: 254-2-623692, or nick.nuttall@unep.org


UNEP News Release 01/51

Wednesday 09 May 2001
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