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Persistence versus Persistents.

Nearly 40 years after Silent Spring, environmental advocates are still pushing for elimination of persistent organic pollutants (POPS)

RACHEL CARSON's 1962 book, Silent Spring, eloquently and passionately described the deadly environmental and human health impacts of DDT. [1] In so doing, Silent Spring became a turning point in the collective environmental consciousness of the West. Although Canada and the US banned DDT a decade later, the first concerted global effort to have DDT banned (along with 11 other dangerous substances) is now playing itself out on the world stage, over 38 years after Carson sounded the alarm.

Thus far, there have been four international negotiating conferences dedicated to hammering out a legally binding global treaty addressing persistent organic pollutants, more commonly referred to as the proposed POPs treaty. [2] The POPs treaty negotiations act as a barometer for the environmental commitments of the key players, including Canada.

The negotiations also raise and crystallize a number of profound policy, economic and political issues pertaining to the toxic substances. The basic conflicts among the negotiating parties continued to be intractable in the most recent negotiating session held in Bonn last March, underscoring the importance of the next and final round of negotiations in South Africa set for December 2000.

Canadians should be particularly interested in their country's role in these vital negotiations. Canada was a major driving force to convince the international community to negotiate a treaty on POPs. [3] Canada has also shown clear commitment to ensuring a treaty is concluded. But it has not been a leader in pushing for a strong agreement. Such leadership will be necessary to overcome US resistance and the industry lobby for a minimal response to the POPs problem. [4]

The treaty's initial list of target chemicals cover the 12 most dangerous POPs, with additional substances to be added once the treaty is in place. POPs such as DDT, PCBs, dioxins, furans and hexachlorobenzene have been associated with myriad effects on human and wildlife health, including some cancers as well as reproductive, developmental, neurological and behavioural problems. [5] POPs are also suspected or known to disrupt the hormonal balance within wildlife and humans, an area of research receiving more and more attention. [6]

Some POPs are products manufactured for commercial use. These include pesticides such as DDT, endrin and toxaphene, and industrial chemicals such as the PCBs used as coolants in electrical transformers. Other POPs are unintentional by-products. Dioxins and furans, for example, are not intentionally manufactured for human use but are almost always generated in combustion when chlorine is present and in certain other circumstances.

Once they are manufactured or generated, POPs are persistent. They do not break down in the environment very easily and over time they tend to biomagnify (work their way up the food chain at higher concentrations with each trophic level) and bioaccumlate (build up in fatty tissue throughout the life span of an organism). Today they can be found virtually everywhere. It is likely every human has some level of various POPs in his or her body.

POPs are a particular worry for northern indigenous peoples because of a phenomenon known as the "grasshopper effect". Many POPs tend to evaporate in warm climates, are carried in wind and water currents, and end up in colder regions. Arctic and alpine temperatures act as a "cold trap" preventing further migration of POPs. They then build up in local food chains, exposing top predators (such as polar bears and humans) to levels of POPs much higher than those typically found elsewhere. Thus arctic Inuit are often highly exposed to chemicals that are used thousands of kilometres away, and from which they derive little or no economic benefit.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada), summed up her people's exposure to POPs eloquently in a June 1998 speech as the negotiations opened. "The arctic regions, seemingly so beautiful, and so pure, and so pristine, but already laced with invisible and deadly pollutants have, in my opinion, become the canary [in the coal mine]." [7]

While there is broad agreement that POPs are a serious global problem, competing interests disagree about the proper nature of the response. In the treaty negotiations, the main conflicts are about whether POPs should be eliminated or merely controlled, whether the precautionary principle should prevail in decisions about which additional POPs to address, whether the treaty should take precedence over trade agreements, and whether the wealthy nation signatories should commit to helping poorer countries implement the agreement. [8]


Perhaps the most telling issue in the treaty negotiations concerns the treaty's basic goal. Should the treaty aim to eliminate the use, production and generation of these substances or to control them through end-of-the-pipe solutions? Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, told NGO delegates in Montreal in June 1998, "The main goal [of the treaty] must be to phase out [POPs], not to manage risk." [9] But not all other parties agree.

For eight or so of the 12 POPs, governments and industry accept the principle of elimination. They recognize that these POPs persist and bioaccumulate and can have effects at very small concentrations, that the social and economic impacts are unacceptable, that effective pollution control measures would be too costly, and that alternatives are available.

Elimination versus control is, however, a controversial issue for DDT, which is still used in some countries for control of disease-carrying insects, for PCBs, which continue to be used in electrical equipment, [10] and for by-product POPs. The list of parties lined up against elimination vary, depending on which chemical is under discussion. Africa is largely split on the question of eliminating DDT -- English-speaking African countries and a significant number of malaria-treatment professionals fear the loss of an effective. tool for malaria control; French-speaking Africa and many other countries and NGOs feel that the POPs treaty will be an effective tool to eventually put proven alternatives into practice.

The DDT case is significant because malaria is a deadly threat to humanity and because countries with malaria problems include some of the world's poorest nations. Approximately two dozen countries actually use DDT on a regular basis to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Less harmful chemicals and a host of non-chemical alternatives for fighting malaria are in routine use or are being piloted around the world and have been found to be affordable.

Despite the known negative effects of DDT, the availability of promising alternatives, and the unanimous consensus that DDT should not be phased out until proven alternatives are in place, an intense debate ensued at a number of the negotiating sessions on whether there should be global phase-out of the substance. The key concern was whether the anticipated phase-out would disproportionately affect poor countries.

The debate over DDT at the POPs negotiations has heightened awareness of the tremendous threat malaria poses to Third World development, especially in Africa, therefore demonstrating the need for increased resources to be allocated to it.

POPs by-products, dioxins and furans, present another thorny issue in the "elimination versus control" debate. Generally, dioxins and furans are generated as by-products when chlorinated substances (such as PVC plastics) are burned. [11] Exactly how to deal with dioxins and furans represents perhaps one of the most polarized policy debates between NGOs and industry. Not surprisingly, this has also been an intractable issue in the POPs negotiations.

From the NGO perspective, [12] there is no safe level of dioxins and furans. Owing to their toxic characteristics, even extremely low dioxin levels have the potential to cause harm. Pollution prevention initiatives should be undertaken that would ensure that chlorine-based feedstocks in industrial and other processes that would generate dioxins and furans are eliminated or replaced. NGOs fear that if chlorinated products are allowed to become more prevalent in developing countries, in poorly regulated industrial sources, and in particular incinerators, dramatically increased dioxin discharges will result.

Industry, while supporting the reduction of dioxin emissions where technologically and economically feasible, argues that the elimination of these substances is unwarranted. [13] Instead, better controls of dioxin sources should be promoted over the elimination of chlorinated feedstocks. Industry arguments against elimination continue to be based on uncertainties about the impacts of dioxin and the social and economic benefits of chlorinated products.

Precisely the same positions were debated in Canada in 1999 during parliamentary deliberations on amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development proposed clauses with strong elimination language, but the federal government conceded to industry demands to dilute those provisions. The law commits only to the goal of "virtual" elimination, which the government assumes can be achieved through control measures.

In the POPs treaty negotiations, the European Union has proposed language calling for the "ultimate elimination" of POPs by-products. Canada, the US, South Korea, Australia and many others, however, have opposed this language. Canada fears that this term may be inconsistent with its domestic legislation. Attempts are being made to resolve this debate by finding some acceptable qualifier for the term "elimination." NGOs fear that such qualifiers could create gigantic loopholes that could render the concept of elimination meaningless.


Canada has also lined up with the US regarding how the precautionary principle will be used in the context of this treaty. The principle, introduced in the 1970s, holds that action can be taken against a threat (for example, the continued manufacture of the worst POPs) despite the absence of a thoroughly proven link between it and a harmful effect. [14] Since its adoption in Agenda 21 and the Rio Convention, the precautionary principle has become a normal part of multilateral environmental agreements and domestic legislation, though often as preambular text that has limited legal force. [15]

The latest use of the principle in a multilateral environmental agreement was in the recent Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, concluded in January 2000. Cartagena went beyond mentioning the principle in its introductory text and operationalized it into its decision-making process. Despite this progress, most countries (including Canada and the US) oppose including the principle in anything but the preamble to the POPs treaty. Industry also has long opposed the use of the principle in anything but a watered-down form.

An example of the precautionary principle debate arose with a European Union proposal with respect to article F of the treaty. This article outlines the process for nominating, evaluating and adding new chemicals to the initial list of 12 POPs. While evidence of harm from chemicals is to be evaluated using numeric criteria for persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity as a guide, some flexibility regarding these criteria will be required. Using the precautionary principle in this process would help to ensure that, where conflicting or less-than-overwhelming evidence of harm exists, firm action can still he taken under the treaty.

Canada, at this point, opposes the inclusion of the principle in article F, saying instead that the whole treaty is precautionary in nature, a seemingly unhelpful statement.


The issue of how the treaty relates to the World Trade Organisation's trade regime is also contentious. [16] Australia, apparently acting on behalf of the US, has proposed a clause stating that the POPs treaty will not take precedence over other international agreements, such as the WTO. Advocates of a strong POPs treaty say such a clause is not acceptable. "New MEAs [multilateral environmental agreements] constitute, in and of themselves, new international standards. They should not be open to attacks like this from the WTO," said Morag Simpson, trade campaigner for the Council of Canadians. Where similar clauses have been introduced in other recent MEA negotiations, they have been relegated to preambular language.

"Trade supremacy has no place in the realm of agreements that purport to protect the environment and human health," said Michelle Swenarchuk of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Canadian negotiators have been unclear about whether or not they support the clause in the POPs case, but did agree to its inclusion in the preamble of a recently negotiated multilateral agreement addressing pesticides issues. [17]


A potential deal-breaker in the treaty negotiations revolves around who will pay for treaty implementation, and how. Canada, to its credit, has announced a commitment to spend $20 million to assist countries in dealing with POPs, even before the treaty is signed and ratified. The announcement, made in Bonn at the last negotiation session, electrified the participants, but was not matched by any other country. This is of great concern since Canada alone cannot finance the treaty's implementation.

In addition, a great gulf exists between Northern and Southern countries in determining how the treaty will be financed. Southern countries want a new, independent financial mechanism specific to POPs, with its own secretariat and resources. Donor countries refuse to discuss a new mechanism, and have proposed that the Global Environment Facility be the sole or main treaty financial mechanism. NGOs have been largely neutral on the shape of the appropriate financial mechanism, but have argued forcefully that the arrangements must include simplified project cycles, transparent decision making, adequate funding and equitable governance. If the Global Environment Facility is chosen as the mechanism, substantial reform to its operations would be needed.

Some parties appear to be urging Canada to be a key arbiter in this discussion. If the issue is not resolved during the final negotiation session, it may be left hanging and become an impediment to speedy ratification of the treaty.

Despite Canada's early leadership role in initiating the POPs negotiations, and its past reputation as an environmentally progressive country, Canadian negotiators have mostly sided with the least progressive countries on elimination, precaution and other key issues. As in the CEPA case, industry's concerns seem to have been influential and achieving a POPs treaty, even if severely compromised, has appeared to be the overriding objective.

Canada still has the opportunity to set things right in the last negotiation session this December in South Africa. Hopeful signs include greater parliamentary scrutiny over the Canadian delegation's positions, and the admirable inter-ministerial cooperation that led to the $20 million announcement in Bonn. More of this type of leadership will be needed to produce a treaty that truly protects the environment and human health at home and abroad.

Craig Boljkovac is a policy officer for the Wildlife Toxicology Programme of World Wildlife Fund Canada, currently on a two-year leave and working for the Chemicals and Waste Management Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Geneva, Switzerland.

Paul Muldoon is executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association and chair of the Toxics Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Nework. He was an NGO representative on the Canadian delegation for the third and fourth negotations of the proposed POPs treaty.


(1.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Houghton Muffin, 1962).

(2.) See Report of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for an Internationally Binding instrument for Implementing International Action on Certain Persistent Organic Pollutants on the Work of Its Fourth Session, United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP/POPS/INC.4/8, 25 March 2000). Official POPs documents are available at the UNEP Web site [less than][greater than].

(3.) Canada sponsored a number of prenegotiation sessions and sponsored the first negotiation session in Montreal in 1998. John Buccini from Environment Canada is the chair of the negotiations.

(4.) For a commentary on the US position, see Charlie Cray, "US Undermines Treaty," Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, 703 (July 13, 2000).

(5.) Although there is a wealth of information on the effects of these and similar substances, two books in particular provide the most insightful and useful synthesis: Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream; An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1997) and Theo Colborn, et al. Our Stolen Future (New York: Dutton, 1996).

(6.) A good general overview of the hormone-disrupting effects that have been associated with some POPs can be found in the issue brief Chemicals that Compromise Life; A Call to Action (Washington DC: WWF US, September 1998).

(7.) Public Forum on Persistent Organic Pollutants, The Need for a Strong POPs Treaty, (Washington DC: International POPs Elimination Network/Physicians for Social Responsibility, June 1998), p. 26.

(8.) Other important but less-contested issues include exemptions. The positions of most countries and NGOs is that exemptions allowing the continued use of certain POPs should not apply generally, but should be time-limited, open to regular re-evaluation and country-specific (for example, the continued use of DDT for malaria vector control by a specific country for a certain time).

(9.) Public Forum [note 7], p.28.

(10.) Russia has led the charge against PCB elimination, claiming that many years will be required for it to be replaced in the electrical grids of the former Soviet Union. Other countries are much further along the path to replacing PCBs, and are comfortable with banning them in the much nearer future.

(11.) There are many sources of dioxins and furans, including incinerators, steel plants, pulp and paper facilities and even some fireplaces. For a more comprehensive list in Canada, see Dioxins and Furans and Hexachlorobenzene, Inventory of Releases (Ottawa: Environment Canada and the Federal/Provincial Task Force on Dioxins and Furans, January 1999).

(12.) Elimination of POPs is the foundation for the NGO involvement in the POPs process. To work on such issues, NGOs from all corners of the world have initiated a large, co-ordinated and effective network called IPEN, the International POPs Elimination Network.

(13.) Gordon Lloyd, vice-president of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (August 2000), personal communication.

(14.) See Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, C. Raffensperger and J. Tickner, eds. (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999).

(15.) For example, see O. McIntyre and T. Mosedale, "The Precautionary Principle as a Norm of Customary International Law," Journal of International Law, 9 (1997), p. 221; and D. VanderZwaag, "The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Law and Policy: Elusive Rhetoric and Embraces," Journal of Environmental Law and Practice 8:355 (1999), p.369. The Oceans Act Statutes of Canada, c. 31 recognizes the concept in its preamble and in section 30 while the Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1st session, 36th par. 1997-97-99, addresses it in section 2(1)(a).

(16.) There are a number of trade issues. For example, NGOs maintain that trade in banned POPs is only acceptable if it is for the purposes of their destruction, in an environmentally sound manner, with full knowledge and approval of the importing country. Canada supports weaker language, consistent with what is in the Basel Convention on the transport of hazardous wastes. Other countries, such as Norway, consider Basel to be far too weak.

(17.) More specifically, this is the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) agreement of the Rotterdam Convention.


LA COMMUNAUTE INTERNATIONALE entre dans la derniere ronde des negociations visant la ratification d'un traite international sur les polluants organiques persistants, qui incluent des substances extremement dangereuses comme le DDT, les BPC, les dioxines et les furanes. Les debats en cours se sont polarises sur des questions comme :faut-il eliminer ou seulement controler les substances toxiques? Comment appliquer les mesures de securite? Comment aider les pays pauvres a mettre en application les decisions du traite? Le Canada peut jouer un role important dans ces negociations, en particulier dans sa derniere phase qui aura lieu en Afrique du Sud en decembre 2000.
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Publication:Alternatives Journal
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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