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Geneva post-game wrap-up: Endosulfan, toxic flame retardants & POPs waste

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Karl Tupper
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Wonk Warning: What follows is a long and detailed post wrapping up last week's POPRC6 meeting. Read at your own risk!

I recently spent a week in Switzerland attending the sixth meeting of the Stockholm Convention's Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee. As I reported on Friday, the Committee voted late in the day to recommend a global phaseout of endosulfan, an antiquated organochlorine insecticide.

Even more good news

But the endosulfan decision isn't the only good news from POPRC6. In an earlier post I noted some other issues on the Committee's docket: what to do with PFOS- and PBDE-waste and whether or not SCCPs and HBCD are indeed persistent organic pollutants that warrant global action. Happily, the Committee made good decisions on almost all of these issues.

  • PFOS waste. Perfluorooctane sulfonate and its salts have a number of uses, like in hydraulic fluid, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant textiles, and the production of certain semi-conductors. They also have a number of problems. For instance, they are endocrine disruptors and carcinogens (at least in animals), and they are totally resistant to degradation. This is why they were added to the Convention in May 2009.  Currently, such items are sent landfills, but that may soon change. The POPRC decided to recommend that items containing PFOS be identified, separated from the waste stream, and stored until we figure out how to safely destroy their PFOS content.
  • PBDE waste. A similar decision was taken on polybrominated diphenyl ethers. These are flame retardants that were incorporated into the plastic parts of computers, home electronics, and the foam used in sofas and mattresses. Since they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic, many flavors of PBDEs (specifically the tetra-, penta-, hexa-, and hepta-brominated varieties) were banned by the Convention last year. While that ban prevents their further production and use, a question remains about what to do with all those items that are already contaminated with them. At present, these are usually recycled, a practice which puts them back out into the world in the form of carpet and other products that we are inevitably exposed to. While many countries argued that changing this would be costly or impractical, the POPRC took the high road, recommending, like with PFOS, that these items by identified, segregated, and stored until they can be safe destroyed.
  • HBCD. Our next acronym stands for hexabromocyclododecane. The POPRC also had to decide whether or not it's a persistent organic pollutant, and they agreed that it was. Now the committee must decide what to do about it. Between now and the POPRC's next meeting (in one year) an intercessional working group will draft a "Risk Management Evaluation," which will be finalized at the next meeting. Once that's finalized, the Committee will decide whether or not to recommend a phaseout.*

  • And finally, SCCPs short chain chlorinated paraffins. This is where the Committee fell down on the job. Mainly used as cutting oils in metalworking, this family of compounds clearly meets the criteria for inclusion in the Convention, but the nomination has been stalled in the risk profile stage for years. Japan and China — but mostly China — have been the loudest voices opposing moving it forward. It's probably no coincidence that both countries are producers. On the first day of the meeting China proposed killing the nomination, ("setting the nomination aside" in convention-speak), but in the end the Committee punted. Rather than killing the proposal or moving it forward, it agreed to revisit the issue at a future meeting.

Four out of five ain't bad! The committee took the best possible decisions on endosulfan, HBCD, and PFOS- and PBDE-waste, and resisted the temptation to jettison SCCPs, deciding instead to keep them a holding pattern for a few more years. Not exactly what we were hoping for, but setting them aside would have been worse.

And it was heartening to see Brazil — one of the world's biggest users of endosulfan — say repeatedly that even though endosulfan was economically very important to them, they were nonetheless phasing it out because of studies "indicating reproductive and endocrine problems in farm workers" who use it. Likewise, New Zealand noted that they banned it with a very short phaseout period, and growers were able to quickly find effective alternatives. This despite outcry at the time that the ban would decimate certain industries.

When the Conference of the Parties meets in April to act on the POPRC's recommendation of a global phaseout for endosulfan, they should remember the examples of Brazil and New Zealand. Brazil, because they recognize that a ban is the right and necessary thing to do, in spite of possible economic consequences; and New Zealand, because those consequences turned out to be far less problematic than predicted.

This is the last blog in a series by Karl Tupper on the POPRC6 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, from October 11-15. Previous posts in this series:

For even more detail on the meeting, check out the coverage by Earth Negotiations Bulletin, especially their 14-page Summary Report.

* Now would probably be a good time to describe how the POPRC evaluates chemicals. Any country that's ratified the Convention can nominate a chemical for evaluation. The text of the Convention dictates that a nomination must jump through three hoops, with each taking at least a year to complete. The first hoop is akin to a criminal indictment. The POPRC looks at the evidence, and decides whether there's sufficient information available to evaluate the chemical further. If there is, the Committee moves on to preparing a "Risk Profile". This is the like the actual trial: Is the chemical "likely, as a result of its long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant adverse environmental and human health effects, such that global action is warranted," or not? If the answer is yes, then the chemical is officially a persistent organic pollutant and the committee moves on the last phase, sentencing. A "Risk Management Evaluation" (RME) is then prepared, which assesses various control measures. Once the text of the RME is finalized, the POPRC makes it's final recommendation to the COP: total ban (an "Annex A listing"), a phase out (an "Annex A listing with specific exemptions"), or restricting use to certain essential uses (an "Annex B listing"). At this POPRC meeting, endosulfan jumped through the third and final hoop, and HBCD though the second hoop.)

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