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Pollutants Banned, But With Exceptions

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Apr 28 2011 (IPS) - The fifth conference of the 173 parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, Apr. 25-29, could bring to 22 the total number of internationally agreed forbidden pollutants. Alternatives to DDT – one of the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used in the fight against malaria – are gaining popularity, but its complete ban is not on the agenda.

POPs in recycled and new products. Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

POPs in recycled and new products. Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

“POPs are the worst substances man has ever created. They give toxic legacy to future generations. They are persistent in the environment, remain intact for many years and move up across the globe. You can detect them even in the Arctic, where they have never been used,” Björn Beeler, international coordinator of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), told IPS.

IPEN brings together 700 NGOs from over 100 countries. It was established during the negotiations of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, adopted 10 years ago to forbid or strongly limit the most dangerous chemical products.

When the treaty was adopted, 12 substances were put on the list. At the last conference, in 2009, nine new ones were added.

POPs are pesticides, industrial chemicals and by-products that spread easily through soil, water and air, accumulate in the fatty tissues of living organisms, including humans, and are toxic to both humans and wildlife. Notably, they can be transmitted through breast-feeding. They can produce cancer, reproductive disorders and disruption of the immune system. The Stockholm convention foresees their elimination – with a few exceptions for some of them, like the DDT.

There are three major issues on the agenda of this year’s conference. First, is the listing of endosulfan, “an issue civil society has been campaigning on for decades,” Beeler explains. Endosulfan is a toxic pesticide banned in 80 countries, but still used in China and India, in most of East Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

“Endosulfan is so harmful that even some of the countries that still use it are calling for an international ban via the convention, because it would help them to enact national legislation and fighting against illegal trade,” Beeler told IPS.

The second priority at the conference is the total elimination of pentaBDE and octaBDE – two POPs that were added two years ago, but with exceptions for their recycling.

“We have just conducted a study that shows that these BDEs are as toxic and dangerous as PCB and DDT,” Beeler said. “But the convention still allows their waste to be recycled into other products like foam and plastic.”

The IPEN study argues that carpet pads commonly sold to consumers in the U.S. and other developed countries contain dangerous chemicals that can cause nervous system damage, particularly in infants and toddlers. “The experts committee recommended to ban them and the conference should follow its recommendation,” Beeler said. “Ignoring it for political or economic reasons would be a crime.”

The conference will also consider the elimination of the exception of PFOS, another POP added to the list two years ago with exceptions. “This POP never breaks down, so it will be around for every generation!” Beeler stressed. “We hope that serious action will be taken to promote a phasing out of the exceptions because it is as toxic as DDT.”

DDT is probably the best know POP. Completely banned in most of the industrial world at the end of the 1970s, it is still used in many developing countries. Though forbidden by the convention, it can be used to fight malaria, under the strict control of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and under certain circumstances – only through indoor-spraying and if no effective alternatives are available.

India is the only country that still produces DDT.

“The conference will check if there should still be an exception for malaria,” Michael Brander, programme officer at Biovision, told IPS. “They could conclude that there should be none, but they won’t. Some countries in Africa would be in favour of banning DDT, but others are completely against it and the problem is that there must be a consensus.”

Biovision is a Swiss foundation that promotes alternatives to DDT and research on organic solutions in agriculture.

“The major malaria control program in Africa that uses insecticides inside houses is funded by the President’s Malaria Initiative through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),” Brander argued. “In Uganda, the workers that do the house spraying are paid per bag. So to increase their income, they have to spray as much as possible.”

Ministries of health also think that DDT is an effective and cheap way to kill mosquitoes, “which is not true: it is not the cheapest solution and you have all sorts of side effects and problems when it spreads into soils and air,” he said.

The first Assembly of the Global Alliance for alternatives to DDT took place this week. Biovision presented a project implemented by its partner institute Icepe in which malaria cases were demonstrated to decline by 60 percent in Kenya and 70 percent in Ethiopia through the use of organic plants and an integrated approach that involves the local population.

“We don’t use DDT for malaria any more, we have alternatives,” Ali Mohamed Ali Mahmoud, a delegate from Sudan, told IPS on the sidelines of the conference. “But we are looking for funds for our national action plan to phase out POPs. We already have some money from the Global Environment Facility, but we are seeking additional means to implement some 28 projects. For example, we have old POPs that have been there for years, some electrical transformers that include PCB and POPs to control pests in agriculture. We want to get rid of them and update our legislation to cope with the convention.”

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