The dirty dozen

Twelve of the deadliest toxins known to humans were recently the focus of a debate between 92 nations seeking ways and means to curb their use

Published: Saturday 15 August 1998

The dirty dozen

Greenpeace activists protest a (Credit: International Institute of Sus)WHAT do you do with chemicals that poison the Earth, travel fast, and do not disintegrate easily? Known as Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPS, these are toxic organic compounds that have many agricultural and industrial applications. But also pose a serious threat to all life as well as the environment because, once released, they continue to linger in the atmosphere instead of disintegrating. Termed "persistent" for this very quality, their tenacity makes them popular in the market, but leads to serious problems in the longer run.

Regional and international negotiations on how to deal with these chemicals have been taking place earlier amid increasing global realisation of the severity of their effects on human and animal health as well as on the environment. The most recent of these ended early last month when delegates from 92 countries met in Montreal, Canada, from June 29 to July 3 to discuss the POPs problem and chalk out strategies which would eventually phase out these harmful compounds. Also on the agenda was the possibility of an international treaty against their use by the year 2000.
Facing the POPs threat The 92 delegates met for the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) for an international legally-binding instrument for implementing action on certain POPs under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). This first session primarily focused on organisational issues and readied the stage for negotiations which will take place at the INC's next session in Geneva early next year. These will then continue for two years until the treaty on POPs is formally adopted, hopefully by the end of this century.

As of now, the delegates will focus on 12 of the deadliest POPs, aptly named "The Dirty Dozen" by the delegates. These POPs have been grouped into three categories: those used as pesticides (aldrin, DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene); industrial chemical POPs such as hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and finally, POPs such as dioxins and furans - the by-products and contaminants produced in waste disposal processes.

INC-1, however, made provisions to develop the criteria for identifying other POPs by establishing a Criteria Expert Group (CEG). The CEG will develop scientific criteria and procedures for identifying other POPs. A subsidiary body to examine implementation aspects of issues related to technical and financial assistance was also established at the meet.

Though the meeting could be a stepping stone for global action against the pollutants, several hurdles still remain. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) reported that unlike most multilateral environmental negotiations, the INC-1 was surprisingly free of the usual North-South polarisation that so often plagues almost all negotiating processes. It says, "Delegates met with a clear spirit of cooperation, mutual purpose, shared responsibility and voiced their determination to tackle what is universally acknowledged as a very real and serious threat to human health and environment." However, this "spirit of cooperation" could be nothing more than that initial wave of optimism which later gives way to conflicts of interests between nations, particularly over questions of finance.

Developed countries such as Canada and the US emphasised technical issues and called for identifying and regulating POPs on a scientific basis. Developing nations, such as Thailand, India and Nigeria stressed the importance of financial and technical support if they are to successfully implement obligations that might be placed on them by a future convention. Several participants pointed out that information about the sources and emissions of many of the Dirty Dozen is still unavailable in many parts of the world.

Moreover, according to the IISD report, developing countries feared that their developed counterparts might place too much emphasis on criteria issues rather than the realities of finding and funding cost effective alternatives to POPs. Many of these countries do not have sufficient legal or economic infrastructures to tackle chemical regulations, or to replace the harmful chemicals with expensive-but-less-harmful ones.

POPs in the past
A series of negotiations regarding POPs have taken place in the past, beginning with the Rio Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Agenda 21 had called for a creation of an Inter-governmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) to assess environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals as well as the hazards of transboundary pollution. Then in March 1995, the UNEP Governing Council initiated an assessment process on a list of 12 POPs. The assessment process, which included information on the POPs' chemistry, sources, toxicity, environmental dispersion and socio-economic impacts, concluded in a report in June 1996. This report afforded enough information to make the countries realise the necessity of international action to reduce the risks from the 12 POPs.

More recently, the POP negotiations have been highlighted by two meetings: in March this year, representatives from 95 governments completed negotiations for an internationally legally binding Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (PIC Convention). The PIC principles say that trade of 27 identified dangerous chemicals and pesticides should not proceed unless explicitly agreed upon by the importing country which, the principles say, should be aware of all risks associated with these chemicals. The PIC Convention will formally be adopted in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in September 1998. The PIC meeting was followed in June by the UN Economic Commission for Europe which established a protocol to the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Countries from both East and West Europe as well as North America signed the protocol aimed at controlling, reducing and eliminating emissions of 16 POPs including pesticides such as DDT and other industrial chemicals such as PCBs.

Money matters
Right now, the biggest hurdle in the path of a universally-acceptable treaty seems to be the socio-economic gap between the North and South. According to Ronald Macfarlane of Pesticides Action Network, unless these issues of resources are sorted out, the success of a future POP convention seems unlikely. "The South agrees to phase-outs, but expects the North to pay; the North says there is no extra money. The South asked for discussions on financial mechanisms, the North says it is too premature for this. I would not be surprised that discussion of finances will be pushed back and back until there is no time to include details in the convention," he says.

A POP convention without financial mechanisms will be wholly ineffective. Claudia Saladin, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, USA, had stated that the international treaty process that began on June 29 will "either be a charade or an historic achievement, depending on what the governments of the world do over the next two years."

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