Canada ratifies toxic airborne pollutants agreement

The Canadian government became the first country to ratify UN protocols on the reduction and elimination of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Heavy Metals at the end of December 1998.

The two protocols were negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE) which includes Canada, the United States, countries of Western Europe and most of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The POPs and Heavy Metals Protocols are the first major multinational, legally-binding protocols to protect the environment and human health by placing controls on toxic airborne substances, such as PCBs, DDT, mercury and lead.

“Canada is particularly proud of being the first country to ratify these international protocols,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. “Canada has played a key role in the international negotiations of these protocols, and continues to show leadership by being the first country to ratify them.”

The POPs protocol covers16 POPs, including industrial chemicals such as PCBs, pesticides such as DDT and toxaphene, and contaminants and by-products such as dioxins and furans. These substances can be found in all parts of Canada but high levels of these substances can be found in the Arctic, the Great Lakes, the Rockies and the St. Lawrence River basin.

While most of the substances covered in the POPs Protocol have been banned or severely restricted in Canada for years, they are still produced, used or released in a number of other countries.

These pollutants continue to accumulate in the Canadian environment because they can travel great distances in the atmosphere, and are then deposited in colder climates such as the Canadian North.

The Heavy Metals protocol covers three toxic heavy metal pollutants, cadmium, lead and mercury. While heavy metals are naturally occurring substances, exposure to high levels of these metals in the environment has been linked to adverse effects on human health and wildlife. The Heavy Metals protocol focuses on managing emissions of metals released to the environment as a result of human activity, such as emissions from industrial activities, combustion processes, and waste incineration.

At the joint meeting of Energy and Environment Ministers in Halifax in October, all ten provinces and two territories expressed support for Canada to ratify both the Heavy Metals and Persistent Organic Pollutants Protocols. Canadian laws and regulations already meet or exceed all of the provisions in the protocols.

The Protocols will come into effect once 16 UN/ECE member countries have ratified them.

Canada is also currently participating in international negotiations for a global agreement on POPs, under the UN Environment Programme. The agreement will initially focus on 12 POPs identified for immediate action but will also develop criteria for identifying additional POPs requiring action. The negotiations are expected to conclude by the year 2000.

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