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November 27, 2000
Volume 78, Number 48
CENEAR 78 48 pp.15-17
ISSN 0009-2347


Governments still have major sticking points on eliminating persistent organic pollutants

Cheryl Hogue
C&EN Washington

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as DDT and dioxins have to go, governments around the world agree. Still undecided is whether this means total elimination of these substances or reducing production of them as much as possible.

Negotiators hammering out a new POPs treaty will meet next week in Johannesburg, South Africa, where they have this and several other thorny issues to resolve. They have yet to settle on criteria for adding more chemicals to the so-called dirty dozen covered initially by a new treaty. They must decide whether industry will be allowed to create trace amounts of POPs in its operations or whether companies may intentionally manufacture any of these 12 substances for use as chemical intermediates. Financial aid to help developing nations get rid of POPs, including several pesticides used in agriculture, will be a key feature of the pact. But exactly how this funding will work and how much money will be involved remain up in the air.

Twelve chemicals initially covered by persistent organic pollutants treaty
Dioxins--industrial by-products
Eldrin--insecticide, rodenticide
Furans--industrial by-products
Hexachlorobenzene--fungicide, industrial by-product
Mirex--insecticide, fire retardant
Polychlorinated biphenyls--electrical insulators, other commercial uses
McGinn (left) and Walls [Photos by Cheryl Hogue]
"It's probably the most significant environmental negotiation in the early years of this decade," says Michael Walls, attorney for the American Chemistry Council (ACC, formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association). The Johannesburg meeting will set the tone for future environmental talks and will test the ability of government to address priority risks to health and the environment, he tells C&EN.

Anne Platt McGinn, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute , a policy think tank in Washington, D.C., says the new POPs treaty "will lay the groundwork for rethinking the role of synthetic toxics in our lives."

The Dec. 4-9 meeting is the fifth and final round of talks on a United Nations treaty to control POPs. The sessions are expected to be long and intense because negotiators are under the gun. What gets hammered out at this meeting will get forwarded to a signing ceremony for high-level officials scheduled for May 2001 in Stockholm. Those high-level officials have the option of making minor changes to the pact, but they will not do in-the-trenches negotiation. That work must be completed in Johannesburg.

Dozen chemicals targeted

Deciding to get rid of the 12 POPs initially targeted under the treaty was fairly easy.

"Only decades ago, most of the 12 POPs targeted for action under the treaty being negotiated did not exist," says Klaus Töpfer, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program . "Now they are in the air, water, [and] soil around the planet--and in us all--and they last for generations." These substances enter people's bodies primarily through the food they eat.

The chemicals fall into three categories. One covers pesticides, including DDT and chlordane, that are still used in the developing world. Another class of POPs includes industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls. The third category is unintentionally created by-products, notably dioxins and furans, formed in combustion and through some industrial processes such as paper bleaching.

Under the draft treaty, nearly all intentional production of these chemicals would be banned. Last year, negotiators agreed that DDT should be phased out over the long run, but that developing nations could continue to use this organochlorine pesticide for controlling mosquitoes that transmit malaria. Uses of DDT for agriculture, however, would be prohibited. Although industrialized countries banned DDT years ago, farmers in some developing countries still use this relatively inexpensive chemical to control insect pests in their fields.

An issue that negotiators have hashed over at each of the previous four rounds of POPs talks but have yet to resolve is whether the treaty will set as its ultimate goal complete elimination of the chemicals it controls. The U.S. government, supported by chemical companies, does not believe that elimination is realistic, especially for dioxins and furans. The U.S. wants the treaty to call for reduction of these substances as much as possible. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU), backed by environmental activists, wants the treaty to have elimination as its central goal, even if it cannot immediately be achieved ( C&EN, April 3, page 13 ).

A State Department official tells C&EN that the U.S. would be willing to commit to elimination of POPs if this could be achieved. But because dioxins are formed in the burning of biomass, such as wood used for cooking and heating fires, this is not realistic, according to the official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

Walls says elimination of dioxins and furan production "as a practical matter is impossible."

The State Department official says the U.S. is working with developing countries to come up with national plans for addressing sources of dioxins and furans. One aim is to ensure that emission control equipment is installed on new facilities that are major sources of these substances, such as medical incinerators, he says.

Precautionary principle

The precautionary principle also looms large at the Johannesburg talks. In part, it figures into how new substances will be added to the initial list of 12 POPs controlled under the agreement. The EU has proposed precautionary principle language for the treaty, saying the lack of scientific certainty about a chemical's health and environmental effects should not stop consideration of its being listed as a POP.

"We think that this European proposal is inappropriate," Walls says. A minimal amount of information should be available for a substance before governments decide whether it gets added to the treaty, he says. Establishing such a standard does not amount to requiring scientific certainty before actions to address POPs are taken, he says.

The State Department official says the treaty itself is an embodiment of precaution because it does not require scientific certainty before POPs are controlled. Walls of ACC agrees: "This is a precautionary instrument by nature."

"If the treaty is precautionary, why not say it?" counters Rick A. Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign. The precautionary principle should hold sway, especially when chemicals are added to the pact in the future, he says.

The State Department official says that adding substances in the treaty should be based on scientific knowledge, not just public concern about a chemical. He criticizes the EU position of wanting the precautionary principle to be the basis for adding more substances to the accord. This would trigger action under the treaty when little or no scientific information exists on a chemical, he argues.

Töpfer (left) and Hind
But according to Hind, if a substance meets the various criteria for being considered a POP, such as persistence in the environment, governments should act to prevent the use of the chemical even if direct evidence of human harm is lacking. Decisions on listing compounds under the treaty should be based on this precautionary approach rather than risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis, Hind says. Risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis can be used "to justify a minimum level of poisoning," he says, whereas the precautionary principle creates a drive toward the use of less toxic material.

"Adopting the precautionary principle is a way to take out an insurance policy against our own ignorance," says McGinn, who is the author of a new paper on using a precautionary approach regarding the use of synthetic chemicals. "The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof to the industry" by requiring companies to prove that the risks their products pose are not unreasonable, she says.

Explicit opt-in?

Meanwhile, the EU and the U.S. go to Johannesburg with different stances on international procedure after chemicals are added to the POPs convention. The U.S. believes that, after a substance is added to the pact, national governments should not be bound to control the chemical until they get legislative approval, the State Department official says. This type of procedure is known as "explicit opt-in."

In contrast, the EU wants governments automatically bound to regulate a chemical once it is added to the pact--unless they notify other treaty partners within a specified period of time, perhaps within six months of the chemical's listing, that they will not do so.

Under the explicit opt-in procedure, the U.S. Senate would have to agree to adding more chemicals to the POPs treaty. Aides for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have told negotiators that senators want to review any additions to the pact, the State Department official says.

The U.S. government also argues that explicit opt-in is particularly important for developing countries that may not know the extent of a chemical's use within their nations and whether viable alternatives to that compound exist, the State Department official says.

Funding for disposal, control

Halting production of POPs is only part of the treaty. Existing stocks of these chemicals must be disposed of in ways that keep them from entering the food chain. Tons of these substances are located in the developing world.

The U.S. goal for the Johannesburg meeting is to get developing countries to agree to a POPs control regime that is strong and doable, the State Department official says. The emphasis is on developing countries, he explains, because many industrialized countries are already controlling many POPs under a regional pact--the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, for example. Western and Eastern Europe, the U.S., and Canada are partners to that accord.

Developing countries want the industrialized world to provide funds to them for disposing of old pesticides and PCBs and for technological improvements to prevent formation and release of dioxins and furans. The demands of poor countries for financial assistance to carry out the terms of the treaty are a big sticking point in the POPs talks, just as they have been in negotiations of most recent environmental agreements.

Without provision of funds, the POPs treaty will not succeed, Hind says. "The first-world countries need to belly up to the bar--and put their money where their mouth is."

Walls says financial and technical assistance will color negotiations on all other issues at the Johannesburg talks. And developing countries have ensured that the money issue will be front and center at the meeting. In the draft treaty hammered out in four previous rounds of negotiations, the developing world has inserted qualifying words such as "to the extent finances are available" in nearly every section.

The State Department official says the U.S. recognizes funding as a legitimate issue for poor nations because they have many needs that are more acute than POPs, such as ensuring that their people get enough food or addressing AIDS and other health issues. But although the industrialized world may provide money to help poor nations cover costs that are directly related to their obligations under the new treaty, developing countries will also have to take some action on their own to protect their citizens from exposure to POPs, he says.

Treaty exemptions

Whether to allow exemptions to the treaty--and, if so, what kind should be allowed--has environmental activists pitted against many industries, including chemical manufacturers. Environmental groups are fighting hard against "general" exemptions, sought by industry, which would allow some production or use of POPs to continue worldwide. Environmental activists acknowledge the possible need for country-specific exemptions to the ban on POPs if these exemptions are approved on an individual basis and include an expiration date.

Hind of Greenpeace says the only "intellectually defensible" general exemption is for production of POPs for scientific research, but he is doubtful about such a need. He calls general exemptions "a UN amnesty for polluters."

[Photos courtesy of Food & Agriculture Organization]
Funding to help developing countries dispose of obsolete pesticides is a major issue.
The State Department official says the U.S. is seeking three types of general exemptions to the treaty. One is for POPs found in items already in use. Examples are telephone poles and railroad ties treated with chlordane to protect against termite damage, he says. A second is for de minimis, or trace, contaminants, such as small amounts of DDT that are formed in the manufacture of dichlorophenol. The third kind of exemption would allow a POP to be intentionally manufactured as a site-limited, closed-system intermediate in a process that creates and transforms the chemical. Walls says an example of this is production of DDT that is transformed through further reactions into another pesticide.

Walls says a de minimis general exemption is needed to ensure that policymakers focus their attention on highest priority risks from POPs rather than on small risks from trace amounts.

Hind opposes a de minimis exemption, saying it would raise a tough question: How much of a POP is safe? Governments would also have to decide whether to set an overall amount of the chemical that could be created worldwide--then divvy up allowances for producing the substance--or to establish limits for sources of POPs, he says. If decisionmakers select the latter option, they may find that environmental levels of POPs will increase as more sources come on-line, just as air pollution benefits gained through tough tailpipe emissions are erased by people driving more and having more cars on the road.

Clifton Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Federation's global toxic chemicals initiative, opposes creation of any general exemptions, at least for now. "My hope is that the U.S. government will support only country-specific exemptions for [chemical] intermediates," Curtis tells C&EN.

The State Department official says any country that seeks an exemption allowing it to continue producing a POP pesticide should have to provide some assurances that it will use and dispose of the material in an environmentally sound manner.

Role of new U.S. President

Although the Clinton Administration is carrying out the negotiation of the POPs treaty for the U.S., appointees of the president-elect will play key roles regarding the pact's future, Hind notes. The new Administration will decide whether to sign the completed convention at the Stockholm meeting next spring.

Hind says this will be a test of the new Administration on environmental issues and the precautionary approach.

If the U.S. signs the agreement, the new Administration will have to decide whether or when to send the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification. The accord would not become binding on the U.S. until after the Senate agrees to ratification by a two-thirds majority.

Key to such a vote will be Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Hind says Helms, who opposes abortion, should in theory support the agreement because it would "protect the unborn" by preventing POPs from being transferred to the next generation in the womb and through breast-feeding.

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