JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- After a week of deliberations to ban the world's most toxic chemicals, delegates have reached an agreement, which "constitutes a declaration of war on persistent organic pollutants," said conference chairman John Buccini.
Persistant organic pollutants (POPs) harm the environment and endanger human health. They are toxic, long lasting, and travel in multiple cycles of evaporation, transported by air and condensation to remote areas far from the source of release.
They accumulate in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated higher in the food chain over time. They present a special risk to children because they are conveyed through the placenta and in breastmilk, and can have a critical effect on the foetus and infant whose systems are at key stages of development.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) oversaw last week's negotiations, formally known as the Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC 5). Scheduled to finish Saturday, last minute bargaining meant the meeting did not conclude till Sunday morning.
Delegates from 122 countries had spent the last six days discussing ways to ban or minimize 12 of the most notorious POPs.
They are the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene; the industrial chemicals PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and hexachlorobenzene, which is also a pesticide; and dioxins and furans, which are the unwanted byproducts of combustion and industrial processes.
At 7:30 yesterday morning came news of an agreement. "My understanding is, ladies and gentlemen, you've just made a convention," said INC 5 chairman John Buccini.
An hour later, Buccini closed the conference. "The only thing that comes to mind is: we have a legal document today which constitutes a declaration of war on POPs. Congratulations."
"This treaty will protect present and future generations from the cancers, birth defects and other tragedies caused by persistent organic pollutants," a tired Buccini told reporters after the all-night talks.
The treaty paves the way for the elimination of eight POPs, while adopting severe limits on DDT, and a framework toward elimination of PCBs and the two unintentional byproducts, dioxins and furans.
Governments agreed that to work towards dioxin and furan elimination, there is a need to replace materials, products and production processes that release dioxins with non dioxin polluting substitutes.
Dioxins are commonly released during waste incineration and by industries that use chlorine during their manufacturing processes, such as when making polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.
DDT has been exempted because it is still needed in many countries to fight malarial mosquitoes. The aim is to allow countries to protect against malaria until they are able to replace DDT with green alternatives.
In the case of PCBs, which have been widely used in electrical transformers and other equipment, governments can maintain existing equipment in a way that prevents leaks until 2025. This is to allow time to arrange for PCB-free replacements.
Although PCBs are no longer produced, hundreds of thousands of tons are still in use in such equipment.
The treaty will be based on a precautionary principle. The principle states that action should be taken against a chemical when there is sufficient evidence to prove that it threatens human and animal health, even in the absence of conclusive evidence.
It was this point that proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks at INC 5. The United States only wanted a reference to precaution in the treaty preamble, where it would have little legal effect. The European Union wanted and got much stronger language in other sections, including objectives and the section dealing with the addition of new substances to the treaty.
Under the treaty, a review committee will consider additional candidates for the treaty's list of banned chemicals according to new scientific findings.
"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," said UNEP executive director Klaus Tpfer.
The new treaty will be signed at a diplomatic conference in Stockholm, Sweden next May. It will govern the production, use, export and disposal of POPs, but will only enter into force when it has been ratified by at least 50 countries. This process could still take several years.
Despite this, environmental groups welcomed the treaty today.
"It's been 75 years since the chemical revolution began and we are kicking off the new millennium with a treaty that is a big step toward a less toxic future," said Clifton Curtis, director of World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature's Global Toxic Chemicals Initiative.
"The treaty provides a strong foundation for eliminating some of the world's most toxic chemicals."
While praising the conclusion of the almost three year process, WWF noted that challenges lie ahead. The issue of how to help the developing world financially as it moves away from reliance on POPs, is significant, said the group.
For now, negotiators have agreed to use the existing Global Environment Facility as the "interim" mechanism for funding, pending a review of the matter once the treaty is in force and operational.
"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," added Curtis.
"Common commitment by the government negotiators to eliminate POPs helped sweep away the spectre of The Hague climate summit's fiasco that hung over this final session of negotiation."
Last month's 6th Conference of Parties (COP 6) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ended in stalemate.
Environmental group Greenpeace was similarly pleased.
"This agreement sends a clear message to industries that they must reform and stop using our earth as a testing ground for their dangerous pollutants," said Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace political advisor.
"Crucially, the tap that pours new persistent organic pollutants into our environment will now be turned off. Now we can also eliminate those that are contaminating us today and put an end to this toxic legacy, the result of 50 years of unregulated environmental abuse," added Stairs.
The group warned that much work remains. "It is encouraging that these chemicals, which are wreaking havoc around the world are to go," said Stairs.
"This is a significant step towards a toxic free future, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make it effective. The foundations have been laid, but the real work starts now," said Stairs.
For conference chairman, John Buccini, INC 5 capped something of a personal triumph. The Canadian chemist who recently retired from Environment Canada has been studying POPs for the United Nations for five years.
He chaired all five negotiating sessions, which began in Montreal and continued in Nairobi, Geneva, and Bonn before ending in Johannesburg yesterday. Several participants jokingly suggested that the new agreement should be named "The Buccini Convention."
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