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“This treaty is a huge step forward, because it targets an entire class of dangerous and long lasting chemicals for global phaseout,” says Pesticide Action Network Program Coordinator Kristin Schafer. Persistent organic pollutants, or “POPs,” are toxic chemicals that persist in the environment, build up in our bodies and follow water and air current around the globe. Twelve chemicals are on the initial phase out list under the treaty, and five more – nominated at the first meeting in May 2005 – are already being considered for addition. At the Geneva meeting, countries are likely to nominate several more chemicals for addition to the growing list targeted for a global ban.
The United States has signed but not yet ratified the treaty, so they cannot participate in any decision making in Geneva. Ratification requires Congressional amendments, which have been mired in partisan debate focused mostly on how the U.S. would respond when new chemicals are added under the treaty – a key issue, as all of the pesticides on the initial list have already been phased out in the U.S.
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Schafer, who will be attending the Stockholm Convention meeting, has been working with partner groups around the world for many years to stop production and use of chemical poisons that can last in our environment and our bodies. “It's something all human beings share in common – we are polluted with POPs. Indigenous people in the Arctic and soccer moms in Atlanta all have long lasting contaminants in their bodies, and so do their children. Many of these chemicals have been linked with cancers and neurological disease - these contaminants are a danger to our health.”
The initial list of POPs chemicals targeted for phaseout includes nine pesticides: aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene and DDT. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans (industrial by-products) are also on the list.
While DDT is targeted by the treaty, exemptions are available for countries that are still using DDT to battle malaria. The treaty mobilizes much needed funding to help countries shift to safer alternatives for malaria control, which has drawn attention and resources to the ongoing and long ignored tragedy of malaria, particularly in Africa. A fringe group of U.S. conservatives continues to push to re-establish DDT as a “safe” chemical for use against malaria, despite a clear decision by the international community that DDT should be targeted for ultimate elimination and alternative malaria control methods must be supported.
The pesticides lindane and chlordecone were nominated for addition to the treaty in 2005, along with the chemicals pentabromodiphenyl ether, hexabromobiphenyl and perflurooctane sulfonate. Both lindane and chlordecone have been on PAN International's Dirty Dozen pesticide list since the early 1980s.
Nominated chemicals are considered by an expert group called the POPs Review Committee, which will determine whether the chemicals meet the criteria of toxicity, bioaccumulation, persistence and transport laid out in the treaty. The Committee will then forward their recommendation to government delegates for consideration. The Committee meets every six months in Geneva, and the UNEP Secretariat estimates that the process of adding a chemical to the treaty could take 2-4 years. Pesticides still used in the U.S. that PANNA hopes to see added to the Stockholm Convention list include endosulfan, pentachlorophenol, dicofol and methoxychlor.
Schafer, an advocate for phase out of POPs pesticides, often finds herself on the opposite side of the issues from her own government. “Although many of us who are fighting for stronger protections on this issue are Americans, our own government is trying to undermine this treaty. They say that protecting the health of the world from these toxins should not interfere with commerce.”
For the U.S. to ratify the treaty, federal laws governing industrial chemicals and pesticides must be amended. Two of the bills currently under consideration to make these changes have two very different agendas. Congressman Paul Gillmor's bill (HR 4591) ignores the Precautionary Principle, an important concept underlying the Stockholm Convention, and undermines state's rights for protecting their people from toxins. In contrast, Congresswoman Hilda Solis' bill (HR 4800) places public health protections over business interests.
“The rest of the world is moving steadily to live up to their commitments under this global toxics treaty,” says Daryl Ditz, senior policy advisor for the Center for International Law. “It remains to be seen whether the Bush White House and Congress will set aside their ideological agenda and join the community of nations to protect public health and the environment. ”
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.