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lead.jpg (22302 bytes)    Volume 3 
   Number 3
   28 July 1998 

Why do we need a global POPs treaty?
By Bo Wahlström, Senior Scientific Advisor, UNEP Chemicals, Geneva, Switzerland


Although the terms POPs and Persistent Organic Pollutants were not coined until years later, Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring described the deleterious effects of a number of pesticides that were later shown to be POPs, including DDT, aldrin and dieldrin. Several toxic and persistent pesticides eventually recognized as POPs were banned by industrialized countries in the 1960s and 70s. It was thought at the time that such national measures would effectively limit or abolish the problem associated with these chemicals. However, environmental monitoring programmes gradually made it clear that, after an initial decline, concentrations in the environment and in biota were not declining further. It also became clear that some populations, such as the Inuit Eskimos, are at particular risk because there are high concentrations of some POPs in their traditional staple foods.

In response, the international community has launched action on a number of fronts. First, developing countries are taking steps to adopt and strengthen national control regimes such as those existing in most developed countries. They are starting to gather information, make inventories and explore options for replacing remaining POPs uses with alternatives.

Second, a series of global actions for strengthening and coordinating national efforts to reduce or eliminate releases of POPs are now underway. The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, adopted in November 1995 in Washington DC, includes specific provisions to address POPs. There are also a number of regional agreements in place directed at the reduction and/or elimination of POPs. A legally binding Protocol to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), completed under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and covering 16 POPs, was adopted on 24 June 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark. Days later, on 29 June 1998 in Montreal, negotiations began on a global agreement on 12 POPs. These negotiations are being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and are expected to be completed in the year 2000.

What Are POPs?

POPs are chemicals or by-products that resist degradation in the environment. They accumulate in the body fat of animals. Concentrations increase for each upward step in the food chain and can reach very high levels in, for example, seals and polar bears. Fatty fishes, such as salmon, herring and eel, have higher concentrations than do fish such as cod or haddock.

Some human populations, such as the Inuit who eat salmon and seal, receive more than the Tolerable Daily Intake established by the World Health Organization (WHO). One single meal may contain as much as 100 times the acceptable daily intake. Breast-fed infants may also easily exceed the acceptable intake. The effects of consuming POPs can be serious, including harmful effects on fertility and embryo development, damage to the nervous system (including intellectual and learning impairment) and cancer.

Most POPs are banned, severely restricted or otherwise managed in industrial countries. Many have been used as pesticides in agriculture and for the control of parasites. Some of them are still manufactured and used in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. In particular, thousands of tonnes of DDT per annum are manufactured in some developing countries, and PCBs appears to be still produced in some countries, e.g. the Russian Federation.

The Problem of Global Transport

In principle, a POP chemical released anywhere on earth may in time reach any other place of the globe. However, there is a particularly large-scale redistribution of persistent organic pollutants from warmer to colder areas. POPS can spread from tropical countries by evaporating into the atmosphere and then condensing over colder areas, similar to the way water vapor in air condenses as dew on a summer evening.

Because the circumpolar countries have large areas with low mean annual temperature, limited exposure to the sun, and a small biosphere, the humans and the higher animals in these regions tend to absorb unusually high concentration POPs in their bodies, particularly in body fats.

As long as they continue to be used, POPs will find their way into the environment and stay there for a long time. Even if all production were to stop immediately, the problems with POPs would persist for years or even decades. Thus no single country can solve their national POPs problems alone. Because POPs are migrants without passports, global agreements and global measures are essential.

The Developing Country Situation

There is a genuine lack of knowledge about POPs sources and releases in many developing countries. However, existing data from wildlife in Africa and other regions show concentrations of POPs equal to or higher than those in temperate or cold regions. There are also occupational health problems related to the use of POPs in developing countries. Thus, POPs problems also occur in the countries or regions where they are used.

Border controls are sometimes ineffective, which can lead to illegal trade in banned POPs. The infrastructure for chemical management and enforcement is often weak and compliance with regulations limited. Pesticide POPs often become a cheap and quick alternative for subsistence farmers with low levels of education and no modern equipment.

Indeed, many POPs pesticides are easy to use. They are not acutely toxic and thus do not appear overtly hazardous.They do not require special knowledge or equipment. They only need to be applied once during a crop’s growth cycle and the effect is immediate, visible and persisting. To persuade poor subsistence farmers to stop using these "benefactors," intimate knowledge of local conditions and effective means of communicating information are needed. Economic measures such as subsidizing the price of alternatives and offering training in new techniques are important.

Awareness Raising in Developing Countries

Between July 1997 and June 1998 UNEP, in cooperation with the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), convened a series of eight subregional workshops in which 138 countries participated. The aim was to raise awareness on POPs issues in developing countries and countries with economies in transition, in preparation for the upcoming global negotiations. Participants from governments and other stakeholders met to discuss the nature and significance of the POPs problem, including what is known about releases and the risks they pose, recent regional and international policy developments and opportunities to address problems related to POPs at the national and regional levels.

Issues Raised by Developing Countries

In most regions, obsolete stockpiles of old chemicals, including POPs, are an important and difficult issue. Some countries have established inventories of pesticide stockpiles with the support of FAO. In a few cases, stockpiles have been destroyed or disposed of, sometimes by being exported to industrialized countries with proper incineration facilities. The chemicals in obsolete stockpiles are often hard to identify, due to inadequate storage conditions, leakage and loss of labelling. The 12 POPs targeted by UNEP constitute an unknown fraction of the stockpiles. Sharing expertise and experience between countries could save resources and facilitate the gathering of basic information on remaining stocks.

Developing countries emphasised the need for creating or strengthening national coordinating mechanisms, including intersectoral and/or interministerial committees on POPs, and, as appropriate, non-governmental stakeholders. An important step in taking action against POPs was the clear designation of responsibilities between the appropriate ministries.

Countries stressed the need to nominate UNEP national focal points for POPs, as well as focal points for IFCS, and to make sure that there is sufficient coordination between them and other focal points, such as those for the Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (PIC).

Many countries requested more information on alternatives in order to proceed with the phase-out of some currently used POPs. An ongoing UNEP project on developing guidance for selecting replacement for pesticide POPs would be of great help. Existing structures for regional co-operation should be used as much as possible. Although they might differ in mandate and scope from region to region, in all regions there were structures that could be used for discussing POPs issues.

The awareness-raising workshops sensitized countries to the POPs issue and encouraged new actions at both the national and regional levels. Most countries are now aware of the global POPs issue, which facilitates their participation in the global negotiations. Some countries have recently taken legal action on POPs. New regional activities started as result of the workshops. Regional networks have been established or strengthened. A clear list of needs and priorities for countries and regions emerged. The workshops offered countries a meeting ground to discuss common chemical issues in a positive and fruitful atmosphere.

The Start of Global Negotiations in Montreal

The first session of the International Negotiating Committee (INC-1) for an International Legally Binding Instrument for Implementing International Action on Certain Persistent Organic Pollutants was held in Montreal from 29 June to 3 July 1998. A total of 94 governments were present together with a large number of UN bodies, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs representing industry, academia, and public interest groups. Several delegates had participated in the awareness raising workshops. The meeting was a great success for all participants, as well as for UNEP and the host country.

The meeting established a subsidiary body to be called the Criteria Expert Group. The CEG will develop science-based criteria and a procedure for identifying additional POPs as candidates for future international action. Two co-chairs and a rapporteur were elected, and the meeting also agreed to terms of reference for the CEG, including working in all six official UN languages. This group will meet intersessionally and report to subsequent sessions of the INC.

The whole negotiating process for POPs is dependent on by contributions from the participating governments. Governments have been invited to contribute by sponsoring or hosting meetings. Canada hosted INC-1, and the US has offered to sponsor the first meeting of the CEG. There is, however, a need for further offers to ensure that the negotiations can be completed by the end of 2000.

Important Issues for the Negotiations

Most POPs pesticides have been banned in many countries, including several developing countries. The major remaining use is the spraying of DDT for controlling malaria spread by mosquitos, who transfer the parasite to humans. Although both chemical and non-chemical alternatives are available, there is a continuing debate over whether these alternatives are economically, technically and socially viable. WHO has recently declared the eradication of malaria as a major goal, and it remains to be seen whether this goal can be made compatible with an early phase out of DDT.

The use and, in a few exceptional cases, also the production of PCBs continues, although many countries have taken steps to phase out their use. Economically and technically feasible alternatives are available for all uses, so the overarching issue in all countries is the environmentally sound destruction and disposal of old stocks. In many countries incineration is a hotly debated method for destruction. Some suggest that it is a major source of dioxins, and that this is dependent on the chlorine content of the waste. Alternative methods still need to be more widely acknowledged for full-scale use. In developing countries there is the added problem of identifying existing PCB-containing equipment in a safe and adequate fashion.

The problem of abandoned stockpiles, although much broader than just a POPs issue, has come into focus as one of the major issues stressed by developing countries. It is likely that this has to be dealt with in any global agreement.

Capacity building is essential if there is going to be a major shift away from presently used methods or technologies in developing countries. There is also a basic need for developing the necessary infrastructure for the management and control of chemicals, including the enforcement of regulations.

Finally, there is great need for financial and technical assistance to developing countries and countries with economies in transition so that they can move to the sound management of POPs by either phasing them out or more strictly controlling emissions. Whether this should be provided through existing sources or by establishing a new financial mechanism for POPs will be a key issue for the INC. At INC-1 a subsidiary group to consider technical and financial assistance and modalities to assist countries to implement the provisions of an internationally legally binding instrument for implementing international action on certain POPs was set up. This group does not yet have a name and will not be operational until the next INC.


POPs are now understood to be one of the most dangerous threats to human health and the environment today. The international community needs to respond in a coherent and cost-effective fashion with measures acceptable from a public health and socio-economic perspective. The global negotiations are off to a good start. Time will show if the world can address the challenge of POPs in a way that will promote sustainable development as defined by the 1992 Rio Declaration

More information on UNEP’s Chemicals Programmes and POPs can be found at
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