Reuters: UN Dangerous Chemical Conf targets POPs

Gary Greenberg Gary.Greenberg at Duke.edu
Mon Dec 4 21:28:13 EST 2000

UN dangerous chemicals conference


SOUTH AFRICA: December 5, 2000

JOHANNESBURG - Delegates from over 120 countries began a week of UN
talks on Monday to hammer out a final treaty to curb and, if possible,
ultimately ban the global production and use of persistent organic
pollutants (POPs).

Of all the pollutants released into the environment every year by human
activity, POPs are among the most dangerous. They are highly toxic and
cause an array of adverse affects, notably death, disease and birth
defects among humans and animals.

The 12 POPs that have been singled out for urgent action are:

Aldrin - A pesticide applied to soils to kill termites, grasshoppers and
other insect pests. It can also kill birds, fish and humans. In one
case, aldrin-treated rice is believed to have killed hundreds of
shorebirds along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Chlordane - Used extensively to control termites and as a broad-spectrum
insecticide on a range of crops, chlordane remains in the soil for a
long time. Tests show it can kill birds and fish and may affect the
human immune system. It is already banned or severely restricted in
several countries.

DDT - Perhaps the most infamous of the POPs, DDT was widely used during
World War Two to protect soldiers and civilians from malaria, typhus and
other diseases spread by insects.

It has since been widely used to control disease and South Africa is
seeking to use it in a limited manner for its continued battle with

Over 30 countries have banned DDT and over 30 have severely restricted
its use. Long-term exposure has been associated with chronic health
effects in humans while its best known toxic effect is egg-shell
thinning among birds.

Dieldrin - Used mainly to control termites and textile pests, its
half-life in soil is around five years. It is highly toxic to fish and
other aquatic animals, especially frogs. It filters through the
environment and was the second most common pesticide detected in a US
survey of pasteurised milk.

Dioxins - These chemicals are produced unintentionally due to incomplete
combustion, as well as the manufacture of pesticides and other
chlorinated substances. They are emitted mostly from the burning of
hospital, municipal and hazardous waste, and also from automobile
emissions, peat, coal and wood.

They have been linked to a number of adverse effects in humans,
including immune and enzyme disorders. Food, especially from animals, is
the major source of exposure for humans.

Endrin - This insecticide is sprayed on the leaves of crops such as
cotton and grains. It is also used to control mice and other rodents. It
can persist in the soil for up to 12 years and find its way to water,
where it is highly toxic to fish.

Furans - These compounds are produced unintentionally from many of the
same processes that produce dioxins. They are similar to dioxins and
produce many of the same toxic effects.

Heptachlor - Mostly used to kill soil insects and termites, it is
believed to be responsible for the decline of many wild bird
populations, including Canada geese and American kestrels in the
Columbia River basin of the United States. High doses are also fatal to
mink, rats and rabbits.

HCB - First introduced in 1945 to treat weeds, it kills fungi that
affect food crops.

When several thousand people in eastern Turkey ate HCB-treated seed
grain between 1954 and 1959, they developed a variety of symptoms
including colic. About 15 percent of these people died. HCB is found in
food of all types and in India the estimated average daily intake of
this potentially lethal substance is 0.13 micrograms per kilogram of
body weight.

Mirex - This insecticide is mainly used to combat fire ants and has also
been employed as a fire retardant in plastics, rubber and electrical
goods. Direct exposure does not seem to cause injury to humans but it
has been classified as a possible human carcinogen.

PCBs - These compounds are used in industry as heat exchange fluids, in
electric transformers and as additives in paint and plastics. They are
toxic to fish and have been linked to reproductive failure and
immune-system suppression in a number of wild animals including seals
and mink.

Large numbers of people have been exposed to PCBs through food
contamination. Consumption of PCB-contaminated rice oil in Japan in 1968
and Taiwan in 1979 caused pigmentation of nails and fatigue, nausea and
vomiting. Children born up to seven years after the Taiwan incident in
infected mothers showed developmental delays and behavioural problems.

Toxaphene - This insecticide is used on cotton, cereal grains, fruits,
nuts and vegetables. It is highly toxic to fish.


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UN conference on toxic chemicals seeks global ban


SOUTH AFRICA: December 5, 2000

JOHANNESBURG - Delegates from over 120 countries start a week of UN
talks on Monday to hammer out a global treaty to curb and perhaps
ultimately ban the production and use of persistent organic pollutants

"Toxic and very long-lasting, persistent organic pollutants endanger the
well-being of our planet and all living things," said Klaus Toepfer,
Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"The global treaty approaching completion in December is the necessary
global defence against these poisons," Toepfer said in a statement.

Scientists say POPs - which include DDTs and PCBs - are among the most
dangerous and long-lasting pollutants released into the environment by
human activity.

Highly toxic, they cause an array of adverse effects, including death,
disease and birth defects among humans and animals.

They are widely used as pesticides in agriculture and forestry and in a
range of industrial activities from fire retardants in plastics and
additives in paints to electric transformers.

Highly stable compounds, they can last for years or decades before
breaking down and circulate the globe in air and water through a process
dubbed by scientists as the "grasshopper effect."


Conservationists say POPs have had a devastating impact on wildlife
populations worldwide, even in pristine arctic and antarctic habitats
thousands of kilometres from the original source.

"POPs are among the most serious human threats to wildlife," Clifton
Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Toxic Initiative,
told Reuters.

POPs accumulate in body fat, making cold region animals like polar bears
and seals particularly susceptible to their effects.

Scientists have attributed sexual development changes in polar bears to
POPs, including feminisation in male bears and a diminished ability to

The decline of seal populations in the North Sea and dolphins off the
Atlantic coast of France have been linked to POPs.

The diet of the Inuit peoples of the Arctic relies heavily on fatty
foods with high concentrations of PCBs.

As a result, Inuit mothers typically have five times the level of PCBs
in their breastmilk as mothers in industrialised countries, according to
the United Nations.

POPs have also been linked to cancer and several other human diseases
and health defects.


"Countries are coming together in South Africa to reach agreement for
the sake of people living today and in generations to come. I believe
they will meet this challenge," said UNEP's Toepfer.

One diplomatic source close to the talks said the European Union was
leading the charge for the elimination of the 12 main POPs singled out
for urgent attention, as well as the banning of new chemicals with POP

But conservationists complain that the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand are seeking to water down aspects of the treaty.

Host country South Africa is pushing to retain the use of DDTs for
malaria control - a position that is widely expected to be accepted.

Malaria remains a lethal force in Africa, killing more than one million
people annually on the world's poorest continent.

Industry is also seen coming on track, as it did with CFCs, once widely
used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and aerosol sprays and linked to
the depletion of the ozone layer.

"Industry was initially reluctant to phase out CFCs, but then it
developed alternatives and profited from them. We see the same happening
with POPs," said one UN official.

The Johannesburg conference is the fifth round of global talks on POPs
and is expected to lead to a treaty that will be signed at a diplomatic
conference scheduled to take place in Stockholm next May.

Story by Ed Stoddard 


Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH    Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu     Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website:                      http://occhealthnews.com


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