PANNA: Progress and Challenges at International POPs Negotiations


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Progress and Challenges at International POPs Negotiations

October 12, 1999

Negotiators from 115 countries met in Geneva, Switzerland last month for the third round of United Nations-sponsored negotiations to develop an international treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). During the session, governments agreed to eliminate and phase out eight of twelve POPS chemicals targeted for action by the UN. The POPs negotiations were also attended by more than 70 NGO representatives, including activists from PAN International's five regional coordinating centers and other organizations participating in the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN). IPEN is a new and influential coalition made up of 180 NGOs from 40 countries.

POPs are highly toxic chemicals that can travel long distances and last for decades in the environment. They are linked to reproductive abnormalities, immune system dysfunction, neurological defects and cancer in humans and wildlife. The UN's "short list" of twelve POPs includes the pesticides endrin, mirex, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, aldrin, dieldrin and DDT; the industrial chemicals hexachlorobenzene (also used as a pesticide) and PCBs; and the industrial byproducts dioxins and furans.

Government negotiators in Geneva agreed to eliminate production and use of the pesticides aldrin, endrin and toxaphene without exemptions. They also agreed to phase out chlordane, dieldrin, heptachlor, mirex and hexachlorobenzene, but may consider limited country-specific exemptions. Significant controversy remains regarding elimination of the remaining chemicals on the list: PCBs, dioxins and furans, as well as the infamous pesticide DDT, which remains registered for public health purposes in approximately 20 countries. Negotiators also discussed criteria by which new POPs will be added to the action list, and technical and financial assistance for POPs phase outs and related activities. National participation was noticeably unbalanced. Many northern countries sent large delegations (22 people in the case of the U.S.), while developing countries were often represented by one or two people. This frequently led to inequities when key topics were discussed in contact groups held at the same time as the plenary negotiations.

The use of DDT to control insect vectors that carry diseases including malaria was a particular focus of debate during the negotiations. Delegates from several malaria-affected countries reported their governments had implemented successful DDT-free anti-malaria programs. Such programs include release of natural enemies of mosquitoes, public education campaigns, and elimination of insect breeding sites, as well as use of non-POPs pesticides including synthetic pyrethroids. Additional examples of successful DDT phase-outs were documented in a World Wildlife Fund study of disease vector management released during the Geneva negotiations. Other countries reported, however, that they lack resources to establish and maintain such programs. The persistence of malaria as a significant threat to the lives of millions underscores not just the need for redoubled efforts to implement existing alternatives to DDT and develop additional control measures, but that political leadership and financial commitments are required in order for this to occur. IPEN participating organizations called for a DDT elimination strategy that combines adequate funding for development and implementation of effective, affordable alternative vector control measures with interim exceptions in specific situations and rigorous enforcement of bans against illegal DDT uses.

IPEN participants at the negotiations praised the leadership of the European Union, Iceland, Thailand, Norway, Gambia and El Salvador in developing a strong agreement to ban POPs. The U.S. and Australia were criticized by IPEN groups for supporting several loopholes that could indefinitely delay chemical phase-outs. NGOs addressed many issues during plenary and working group meetings. Regarding dioxins, Greenpeace and others noted that U.S. proposals would actually speed the spread of dioxin-generating technologies, such as waste incineration, in the developing world. Members of the Indigenous Environmental Network repeatedly noted the horrific impacts of POPs on their health, traditional foods and cultures. PAN North America joined the National Toxics Network of Australia and others in condemning wording that could allow important POPs data to be treated as confidential business information. PAN Asia and the Pacific circulated a letter calling for the addition of endosulfan (an organochlorine pesticide widely used in agriculture) to the POPs action list.

The next POPs negotiation session, to be held in March in Bonn, Germany, will be the last opportunity to ensure the concrete details needed to eliminate the 12 targeted POPs are incorporated within the draft treaty. The POPs treaty is due to be completed in late 2000 and signed by participating governments in Spring 2001, and to come into force in 2003. NGOs interested in participating in efforts to strengthen the POPs treaty and eliminate POPs in their communities and countries are urged to contact IPEN and/or PAN at the addresses and websites listed below for additional information and action suggestions.

Sources: IPEN press releases September 6, 1999 and September 11, 1999; WWF press release September 11, 1999; Greenpeace press release September 10, 1999; presentation by WHO representative at IPEN Conference, September 4, 1999; National Toxics Network (Australia) report on INC3, September 25, 1999; Disease Vector Management for Public Health and Conservation, Patricia Matteson, editor, World Wildlife Fund, August 1999; "Debating the Dilemma of a Global DDT Ban," San Francisco Chronicle August 31, 1999; PCB Research and Information Project Web News report on INC3 September 13, 1999; "Phaseout of World's Worst Chemicals Closer," Environment News Service, September 13, 1999; "UN Progress Slow on 'Dirty Dozen' Pollutants Ban," Reuters News Service, September 15, 1999.

Contact: PANNA. For more information on POPs and IPEN, also see IPEN's website at http://www.ipen.org; for more information on DDT and alternative vector management see WWF's website at http://www.worldwildlife.org/toxics/

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