Toxic treaty is good news: but 'not enough'

Posted: 3 February 2003

This year (2003) a new treaty aimed at restricting a dozen of the most notorious persistent organic pollutants - including nine pesticides, two industrial byproducts (dioxins and furans) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - is expected to come into force.

Known as the Stockhom Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the treaty demonstrates that the world now recognises the dangers of these pollutants, which are associated with many human health disorders.

These include cancers and tumours; learning disorders, attention deficits and other damage to the nervous system; weakening of the immune system; reproductive failure and declines in male births; shortened periods of breast milk in mothers; and increased incidence of diseases such as diabetes and endometriosis(a debilitating gynaecological disorder).

Arctic threat

A key characteristic of POPs is that they travel long distances through the air and then pollute water systems or vegetation in sufficient amounts as to cause harm.

The chemicals become concentrated in fish, meat and milk - and in the people who eat them. This has been especially noted in the cold Artic regions where the chemicals migrate and fall.

But contamination in developing countries, more generally, is often poorly documented and exposures there may be as severe, or more so, says Jack Weinberg, of the US-based Environmental Health Fund, who is Co-Chair of the International POPs Elimination Network.

According to Weinberg, "Full implementation of the Stockholm Convention would protect domestic health and local environments as well as global ones.Implemented effectively is will eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the world's environment and advance chemical safety in all countries."

New dangers

But, says a Worldwatch report, such 'end of pipe' solutions, though valuable, do not deal with the thousands of potentially dangerous chemical compounds now in use, or the three new chemicals which come into use every day.

What is more, it says that synthetic chemicals that are poisoning both people and wildlife could be largely eliminated without disrupting the economy. Evidence from three major sources of these pollutants - paper manufacturing, pesticides, and PVC plastics - shows that non-toxic options are available at competitive prices.

"Poisonous products are so embedded in our lives, it's easy to think that we can't do without them," said Anne Platt McGinn, author of Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals. "Not only are we harming ourselves, we're paying to do it. We don't need to be exposed."

McGinn analyzes the available alternatives in each sector:

  • In the paper manufacturing industry, 94 per cent of the world's bleached paper is made using chlorine - a process that spews out dioxin and hundreds of other dangerous organochlorines into water, soil and the paper itself. Chlorine-free technology, which is significantly cheaper in the long run, has been available for ten years, but has been slow to be adopted.

  • Polyvinylchorine (PVC) has become the second most common plastic on the planet, with an estimated 250 million tons in use. The entire cycle of manufacturing, consumption, and disposal of PVC throws off enormous quantities of toxic byproducts, yet there is a substitute for virtually every use to which PVC is put.

  • Farmers will use 2.5 million tons of pesticides on this year's crops, pesticides that are 10-100 times more potent than formulations used just 25 years ago. A growing number of farmers, however, are adopting integrated pest management (IPM) techniques. These methods, which in many cases reduce costs and increase crop yields, use a combination of natural pest control methods, with limited use of pesticides as a last resort.

Health hazards

The harmful effects of long-lasting compounds may not emerge for years, sometimes generations after the initial exposure. And even then, it is very difficult to find a 'smoking gun'. Scientists are only now discovering that many of these chemicals cause irreversible damage in people and animals at levels that were dismissed as inconsequential by the experts less than a decade ago.

The catalogue of the destructive effects of POPs is long and growing, from cancer and reproductive health effects to learning disorders and reduced immunity. People receive about 90 per cent of their total intake of these compounds from foods of animal origin. Something as common as a McDonald's Big Mac carries 30 per cent of the World Health Organization's recommendation for daily dioxin intake.

New studies are shedding light on the potential health hazards from PVC. Phthalates, a group of chemicals that are mixed into PVC to add flexibility, continuously leak out of the material and into the surrounding environment. Children absorb these compounds when they suck on toys or crawl on vinyl flooring. Swedish researchers recently reported that male workers in PVC plants have a risk of developing a form of testicular cancer - seminoma - that is six times that of the general population.

McGinn argues that cost-effective, workable substitutes exist for the bulk of PVC's current uses. In construction, where 60 per cent of PVC is used, replacements in siding, pipes, cable insulation, flooring, and window frames include non-chlorinated plastics and modified, traditional materials like aluminum, wood, and ductile iron. Some communities now prohibit PVC from transportation, building, and infrastructure projects.

Paper production has long been recognized as a source of toxic pollutants, but some innovative companies within the industry have set a new industrial standard, designing toxics out of production altogether. A growing share of manufacturers have switched their bleaching processes to oxygen, hydrogen, and ozone-based methods, which do not use chlorine, and therefore do not produce toxic organochlorines like dioxin.

In agriculture, proven alternatives are available. Growing ranks of farmers are going completely pesticide-free, profiting from consumers who now spend $22 billion a year on organic products.

Precautionary principle

Simply requiring companies to pay attention to their toxic releases can produce large reductions. In 1989, the US state of Massachusetts began requiring major chemical users to produce a detailed toxics use reduction plan, with no legal obligation to implement any of the identified steps. Nevertheless, some 80 percent of the 1,000 companies with plans have carried them out. In the process, they have saved a total of $15 million in operating costs, while increasing production by one-third. On-site emissions at such facilities were down 80 percent between 1990 and 1997.

Under current regulations, high risk chemicals are treated as innocent until proven guilty. McGinn calls for governments to change this presumption and adopt the precautionary principle in its place. This principle states that in the face of scientific uncertainty, the prudent stance is to restrict or even prohibit an activity that may cause long-term or irreversible harm.

"Adopting the precautionary principle is a way to take out an insurance policy against our own ignorance," said McGinn. "We rarely understand environmental risks until after the damage is done, as we've seen over and over with POPs. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof to the industry, requiring them to prove that the risks are not unreasonable."