Producing poison

Russia continues to produce toxic chemicals even as its production and use has been banned in other countries

Published: Tuesday 30 June 1998

negotiators from the us and 28 other countries are nearing agreement on a treaty to restrict the production and use of toxic chemicals. But reports that Russia still produces and uses polychlorinated biphenyls (pcbs), the poisonous chemical that has been banned years ago in the us and other countries, came as a shock to the delegates . "Delegations were quite surprised by the revelation," according to a state department account, because, "the government of Russia had previously given oral assurances to some European governments that new production had ceased."

That Russia still produces pluto-nium in its nuclear weapons factories has been well publicised; that Russia still produces, uses and may export pcbs which may in the end be more dangerous to more people than plutonium has attracted little attention.

The revelation about Russian pcb production came during negotiations leading up to perhaps the most ambitious environmental directive on this year's agenda, a global pact to ban or limit the production and use of chemical compounds like pcbs and ddt. It turns out that Russia's electric power grid still depends on transformers manufactured with pcbs.

Although alternatives exist, Russia lacks the money and resources to convert these transformers manufactured with pcbs. "It could be extremely difficult to make major changes in the number of pcb transformers in use in Russia without a massive infusion of cash or donation of significant numbers of replacement equipment and of equipment-manufacturing technology", the state department concluded.

As a result, negotiators granted Russia a special exemption from the treaty allowing pcb production to continue till the year 2005 and postponing the destruction of the stocks until the year 2020.

In March, the us and 94 other countries negotiated a "prior informed consent" treaty, requiring exporters of 27 dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals to demonstrate that the countries they are shipping to know what they are receiving and what the risks are.

Delegates had completed work in February on the "Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants" that is to be signed in June at an environmen-tal conference in Denmark. It will require most countries in western and central Europe, North America and the former Soviet Union to ban production of eight organic compounds, phase out others.

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