An international treaty designed to eradicate the world's most harmful chemicals was expanded this past week to include nine additional pollutants.
Five of the pollutants are no longer in production and will be banned entirely. The remaining four chemicals will be phased out with various exemptions. Environmental advocates warned that the exemptions will ensure that health concerns associated with the chemicals will continue for many generations.
The controversial additions to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) include lindane, an agricultural pesticide and pharmaceutical; two forms of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame retardant known commercially as octaPDE and pentaPDE; and perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (PFOS), a chemical used in electric parts, firefighting foam, and stain removers.
The nine chemicals are the only pollutants that have been added to the POPs treaty since a group of chemicals known as "the dirty dozen" were first banned in 2001. POPs are associated with dysfunctions of the human endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems, including various cancers and neurobehavioral disorders. Once released, the chemicals often travel globally via wind and water currents, contaminating local as well as remote regions.
"The tremendous impact of these substances on human health and the environment has been acknowledged today by adding nine new chemicals to the convention," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, on Saturday. "This shift reflects international concern on the need to reduce and eventually eliminate such substances throughout the global community."
Lindane, which is already banned in at least 52 countries, has been associated with seizures and low reproductive rates. Negotiators agreed to eliminate the use of lindane as a pesticide. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests alternative medications for lice removal, warning that "seizures can happen in some patients even if they use Lindane as directed." But the treaty amendments permit the chemical to be used to treat lice and scabies for another five years, with the possibility of an extension.
India, a lindane producer, succeeded in obtaining the exemption despite calls from the European Union and Mexico for an absolute ban. The United States, which signed the POPs treaty but has yet to ratify it, joined in opposing the exemption at the start of negotiations, according to the Pesticide Action Network.
Flame retardants pentaBDE and octaBDE can help slow the ignition and growth of fires, but the chemicals are associated with liver, thyroid, and neurological toxicity. Monitoring programs in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Arctic have found traces of several PBDEs in human breast milk, fish, and aquatic birds.
Although pentaBDE and octaBDE are no longer produced, older cell phones, computers, and cars often contain the pollutants. The POPs treaty would ordinarily forbid these products from being recycled or reused if contaminated with a POP. Negotiators agreed, however, that products contaminated with 18 percent or less of the fire retardants could be recycled until 2030.
PFOS attracted public health concern in 2000 when the company 3M phased the chemical out of its products due to discrete pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers have since detected PFOS and related perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in more than half of drinking water samples collected from New Jersey [PDF] and from the serum of nearly every newborn umbilical cord in a Baltimore,
Maryland study. In animal tests, high doses of PFOS and PFOA have caused cancer, physical development delays, endocrine disruption, and neonatal mortality. Unlike the other eight POPs added to the treaty, PFOS is still produced in large volumes. China, Iran, the United States, and Brazil were among the countries to claim that no economical alternatives to PFOS existed. As a result, PFOS use will continue for a variety of products such as semiconductors, fire foams, insecticides, and textiles, according to the Center for International Environmental Law.
The various exemptions allowed in the treaty amendments led the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a collection of 700 public interest groups, to accuse negotiators of prioritizing short-term economic impacts above the chemicals' health and environmental concerns.
"Basically, industry and countries are asked what exemptions they want, and those are simply listed," said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, IPEN's co-chair, who attended the conference. "The lack of robust process to assess exemption requests was most distressing."
The decision to allow the recycling of pentaBDE and octaBDE prompted concerns that PBDE-contaminated products would be shipped to developing countries and recycled there. Negotiators responded by restricting exports of products that contain POPs if the products are not allowed for sale in the exporting country.
IPEN lobbied for the treaty to require that products be labeled if they contain recycled POPs, but the proposal was not adopted. "Recycled material will be used in unlabeled domestic products including recycled kitchen plastic goods and carpets," Lloyd-Smith said. "These POPs will be perpetuated into the future, and recycled contaminated products will be in peoples' homes."
Following the recent treaty negotiations, various indigenous people groups and nongovernmental organizations urged countries not to exercise the lindane exemption. "The pharmaceutical exemption in essence allows the disposal of existing stocks by dumping them on children's heads," said Karl Tupper, staff scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America, in a statement.
The other chemicals added to the POPs treaty were alpha hexachlorocyclohexane, beta hexachlorocyclohexane, chlorodecone, hexabromobiphenyl, and pentachlorobenzene.
Correction: The story originally stated that the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was expanded to cover additional toxins. POPs, however, are not the same as toxins, which are substances derived from living organisms.
This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service.