Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are pesticides, industrial chemicals, or unwanted by-products of industrial processes that have been used for decades but have more recently been found to share a number of disturbing characteristics, including:
- Persistence — they resist degradation in air, water, and sediments;
- Bio-accumulation — they accumulate in living tissues at concentrations higher than those in the surrounding environment;
- Long-range transport — they can travel great distances from the source of release through air, water, and migratory animals, often contaminating areas thousands of kilometers away from any known source.
The Stockholm Convention currently focuses on 21 POPs of immediate concern — pesticides, industrial chemicals, and unintentional byproducts.
The original 12 POPs are often referred to as “the dirty dozen”, namely:
Unintentional chemical by-products result from combustion and industrial processes and are among the most potent cancer-causing chemicals known.
In May 2009, the parties took the historic decisions to add 9 new chemicals to the list of controlled substances under the Convention: alpha- and beta hexachlorocyclohexane (by-products); lindane and chlordecone (pesticides); tetra- and hexabromodiphenyl ether, hexabromobiphenyl, pentachlorobenzene, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (industrial chemicals).
These synthetic chemicals move everywhere, even through the placental barrier and into the womb, exposing the unborn during the most vulnerable stages of development.
Mission: Planet De-Tox is documentary film, now available free on YouTube, focusing on GEF-funded projects that address toxic chemical pollution on three continents. Two chemicals GEF staffers take viewers to toxic chemical project sites in Asia, Africa and Latin America that are operating with the help of GEF funding and the implementation efforts of GEF partner agencies – the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the United Nations Development Programme.
Scope of the challenge
Of all the pollutants released into the environment every year by human activity, POPs are among the most dangerous. They are highly toxic and long-lasting, and cause an array of adverse effects, including disease and birth defects in humans and animals. Some of the severe health impacts from POPs include cancer, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system.
POPs do not respect international borders, and are often intergenerational, affecting both adults and their children. POPs can affect people and wildlife even at very low doses. The serious environmental and human health hazards created by these chemicals particularly affect developing countries, where systems and technology for monitoring, tracking, and disposing of them can be weak or nonexistent. Across Africa, for example, at least 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides are contaminating soil, water, air, and food sources.
Fullfilling the Stockholm Convention Objectives
Recognizing the dangers of POPs, many countries began limiting or banning their production, use, and release. These efforts culminated in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants that was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2004. More than 160 countries Parties to the Convention agree to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment. The Stockholm Convention focuses on POPs pesticides, industrial chemicals, and unintentional byproducts of immediate concern.
The Stockholm Convention’s objectives include:
- Eliminating the production and use of specific POPs;
- Restricting the production and use of DDT only to disease vector control under WHO guidelines;
- Restricting exports of POPs;
- Developing strategies for identifying stockpiles of POPs and products containing POPs;
- Taking measures to ensure that POPs wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner;
- Developing strategies for identifying sites contaminated by POPs;
- Ensuring that PCBs are managed in an environmentally sound manner and, by 2025, take action to remove PCBs from use;
- Developing and implementing action plans to identify the sources and reduce releases of POPs byproducts; and
- Identifying other chemicals with POPs characteristics and bringing them under the control of the Convention.