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IP/01/730

Brussels, 22 May 2001

EU signs Protocol to phase out world's most toxic chemicals

Today and tomorrow in Stockholm, a conference to sign the international Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) will take place. This Treaty controls the production, import, export, disposal, and use of the most toxic chemicals ever created. It establishes tough international controls on an initial cluster of 12 of these chemicals, of which most are subject to an immediate ban. These are aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans. The global POPs Convention was negotiated in the framework of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and finalised in December 2000 in Johannesburg by delegates from 122 countries. The Swedish environment minister Kjell Larsson will sign the Convention on behalf of the European Community.

With reference to the conference, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "The POPs Convention is an environmental breakthrough and it shows that the international community is on the right track in dealing with chemicals which are highly toxic and which accumulate in our bodies and the environment. I urge all the countries to sign and ratify the Convention as an absolute priority. The Convention is a step to a more sustainable world and nothing is more unsustainable than producing chemicals that harm our ability to have children."

The European Commission was very actively involved in the three years of international negotiations in the UNEP context. The signing of the Convention will not only mark the European Communities' agreement to the Convention but also give an important political signal to other countries that signature and ratification of the Convention should be an absolute priority.

The Community and its Member States are strongly committed to a rapid and effective implementation of the POPs Treaty by providing adequate technical and financial assistance to developing countries and countries with economies in transition. This commitment is reflected in a set of Resolutions and Interim Measures/ Arrangements to be adopted at Stockholm, which will set the stage for crucial activities up to the first Conference of the Parties.

Background

Of all the pollutants released into the environment every year by human activity, POPs are among the most dangerous. They are 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.

These highly stable compounds can last for years or decades before breaking down. They circulate globally through a process known as the "grasshopper effect". 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.

The Treaty sets out control measures covering the production, import, export, disposal, and use of the twelve POPs. Governments are to promote the best available technologies and practices for replacing existing POPs while preventing the development of new POPs.

Future developments

While the control measures will apply to an initial list of 12 chemicals, a POPs Review Committee will consider additional candidates for the POPs list on a regular basis. This will ensure that the Treaty remains dynamic and responsive to new scientific findings. Most of the 12 chemicals are subject to an immediate ban. However, a health-related exemption has been granted for DDT, which is still needed in many countries to control malarial mosquitoes. This will permit governments to protect their citizens from malaria a major killer in many tropical regions 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 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 tons are still in use in such equipment. In addition, a number of country-specific and time-limited exemptions have been agreed for other chemicals.


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