The UN conference which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, and ended on 10 December was hailed as a success by the United Nations, governments and environmental groups, especially since the last POP talks ended with little progress. The treaty sets out control measures covering the production, import, export, disposal, and use of POPs. Most of the 12 initial POPs are subject to an immediate ban, including; the pesticides, aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene, and the industrial chemical and pesticide, hexachlorobenzene.

However, a health-related exemption was granted for the pesticide DDT, as it is still needed in many countries to control malarial mosquitoes. This will permit governments to continue using the chemical until they are able to replace DDT with chemical and non-chemical alternatives that are “cost-effective and environmentally friendly”.

Similarly, in the case of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been widely used in electrical transformers and other equipment, governments may maintain existing equipment in a way that prevents leaks until 2025 to give them time to arrange for PCB-free replacements. Although PCBs are no longer produced, hundreds of thousands of tonnes are still in use in such equipment.

Governments agreed to reduce releases of furans and dioxins, which are accidental by-products and thus more difficult to control, “with the goal of their continuing minimization and, where feasible, ultimate elimination”.

Nations agreed to promote the best available technologies and practices for replacing existing POPs while preventing the development of new ones and will draw up national legislation and develop action plans for carrying out their commitments. POPs Review Committee will consider additional candidates for the POPs list on a regular basis, ensuring that the treaty “remains dynamic and responsive to new scientific findings”. In addition, new and additional funding and technical assistance will be provided to help developing countries and countries with economies in transition meet their obligations.

The meeting in Johannesburg was the fifth and final POPs negotiating session and was attended by some 600 participants. The treaty will be formally adopted and signed by ministers at a diplomatic conference in Stockholm on 22 – 23 May 2001. At least 50 governments must then ratify the treaty for it to come into force.

Of all the pollutants released into the environment every year by human activity, POPs are among the most dangerous, being highly toxic, causing an array of adverse effects, notably death, disease, and birth defects, among humans and animals. Specific effects can include cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system. The highly stable compounds can last for years or decades before breaking down and circulate globally through a process known as the ‘grasshopper effect’. This means that POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated (and often seasonal) process of evaporation, deposit, evaporation, deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source.

In addition, POPs concentrate in living organisms through another process called bioaccumulation. Though not soluble in water, POPs are readily absorbed in fatty tissue, where concentrations can become magnified by up to 70,000 times the background levels. Fish, predatory birds, mammals, and humans are high up the food chain and so absorb the greatest concentrations. When they travel, the POPs travel with them. As a result of these two processes, POPs can be found in people and animals living in regions such as the Arctic, thousands of kilometres from any major POPs source.

“Persistent organic pollutants threaten the health and well-being of humans and wildlife in every region of the world,” said John Buccini, the Canadian government official who chaired the talks. “This new treaty will protect present and future generations from the cancers, birth defects, and other tragedies caused by POPs.”

Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Programme, which organised the negotiations, applauded the strong international regime that has been established for promoting global action on POPs. “This is a sound and effective treaty that can be updated and expanded over the coming decades to maintain the best possible protection against POPs,” he said.

WWF, the conservation organisation, welcomed the treaty, but noted that important challenges lie ahead on how best to provide finance to the developing world to move away from POP reliance. “The formulations on precaution send a loud and clear message that the era of ‘regulate and reduce’ will not be the paradigm for chemicals management in this new century,” said Clifton Curtis, Director of WWF’s Global Toxic Chemicals Initiative.

Likewise, Greenpeace’s Political Advisor, Kevin Stairs, praised the agreement, saying that “the tap that pours new persistent organic pollutants into our environment will now be turned off”.

UN officials reportedly breathed a sigh of relief that the inter-governmental talks ended in agreement, rather than the recent conference on climate change. A new round of talks in Canada aimed at breaking the EU-US deadlock on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases also failed on 7 December.

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