The Use Of Toxic Chemicals Advances Health
And Sustainable Development
Anne Platt McGinn
DC - June 25, 2002 - The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent
Organic Pollutants (POPs) is one of the major achievements growing
out of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Signatories agreed to
phase out and limit production of 12 POPs, long-lived toxic chemicals
that cause biological havoc as they bioaccumulate-collect and
concentrate-in the food chain. The treaty outlines key principles
for a less toxic world, including the prevention of new toxic,
persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals; reduction of existing
ones; and substitution with less dangerous materials. The challenge
at Johannesburg and beyond is to further apply the principles
of prevention, reduction, and substitution to all toxic chemicals.
present, the Stockholm Treaty covers only 12 chemicals: nine pesticides,
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the industrial byproducts
dioxins and furans. The problem is that there is very little basic
health or environmental information for the majority of 80,000
chemical compounds on the market today. Information about the
effects of mixtures of these compounds is even scarcer. And manufacturers
are introducing an estimated 1,000 new chemicals each year.
the Stockholm Convention, authorities and communities have begun
to adopt a proactive approach that seeks to avoid using toxic
chemicals in the first place. This is a key step to keeping toxic
chemicals out of our environment, our food, and our bodies.
off the toxics treadmill requires a combination of strong, binding
laws and commitments; greater public participation; industrial
innovation; and increased consumer demand for toxic-free products
and processes. To maintain the recent momentum in toxics use reduction,
governments, companies, and NGOs must work together to implement
treaties, quickly phase out leaded gasoline, address toxic waste,
and promote product labeling.
are living with the legacy of several decades' worth of toxic
chemical use. Moreover, recent scientific discoveries have heightened
concern about the cumulative effects of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Scientists have shown that irreversible health effects occur at
levels below current "safe" levels. Pesticides and dioxins
can impair the body's immune and reproductive systems, while heavy
metals such as lead and mercury impede cognitive and physical
development. Toxic chemicals travel the globe and threaten the
health of humans and wildlife in some of the world's most remote
breast milk is among the most contaminated foods on Earth. Chlorinated
pesticides, PCBs, lead, mercury, and other bioaccumulative toxins
have been found in breast milk, which is transferred by the mother
to nursing infants.
of people who eat fish worldwide-especially women of childbearing
age and children-are at risk from mercury poisoning, which can
lead to brain defects, neurological disorders, and loss of cognitive
skills. Mercury is emitted from fossil fuel burning, waste disposal,
mining, and other industrial practices.
a 64-percent drop in annual global atmospheric emissions of lead
since 1983, several million adults and children suffer the adverse
health effects of lead poisoning, including impaired mental and
physical development. In the U.S. alone, childhood lead poisoning
is estimated to cost some $43 billion per year.
and computer wastes are growing faster than any other type of
hazardous waste. The computer industry is the most chemically
intense in the world, using 500-1,000 different chemicals, many
of them highly toxic, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
toxic pesticides are routinely used to control disease carrying-pests
in agriculture, homes, businesses, and public health campaigns.
Improper storage and misuse of such chemicals can create problems
ranging from water and soil degradation to human illnesses.
FOR JOHANNESBURG AND BEYOND
and implement global toxics and waste treaties.
some of the world's most toxic chemicals will remove them from
the environment and lay the groundwork to phase out similar compounds.
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants eliminates
or severely restricts the production and use of 12 POPs, ensures
environmentally sound management of POPs waste, and prevents new
POPs from being introduced. The treaty needs to be ratified by
50 countries to enter into force. Eleven parties had ratified
the treaty as of 5 June 2002.
need to ratify the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed
Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides
in International Trade. The Convention establishes a roster of
chemicals that have been banned or restricted by countries. Governments
will be able to use this information in making decisions about
accepting or refusing shipments of chemicals on the list. The
convention needs to be ratified by 50 parties to enter into force.
As of 31 May 2002, 22 parties had ratified the convention.
hazardous waste trade is critical to forcing countries to deal
with the waste they generate rather than shipping it elsewhere.
The 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements
of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was designed to reduce
hazardous waste trafficking, to promote disposal close to the
site of origin, and to prohibit trade with countries that lack
the capacity to manage wastes in an environmentally sound manner.
The 1995 Basel Ban Amendment bans the export of hazardous waste
from rich to poorer countries. The Convention is already in force,
with 151 parties. The Amendment needs 62 parties to enter into
force. As of 31 May 2002, 30 parties had ratified the Amendment.
companies to report and monitor their use and release of toxic
chemicals, and mandate public access to this data.
about environmental releases from industrial facilities pinpoints
the most affected communities and the most polluting industries,
thereby identifying targets for action. Agenda 21 called for nations
to adopt national Pollution Release and Transfer Registries (PRTR)
to track chemicals. Faced with fierce opposition from manufacturers,
fewer than 20 nations have set up PRTRs.
in Western and Eastern Europe, 28 countries have agreed to a more
far-reaching agreement that provides for greater government accountability,
transparency, and responsiveness in providing information about
toxics. This regional agreement, the Aarhus Convention on Access
to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access
to Justice, came into effect in October 2001. This convention
grants explicit rights to the public to participate in governmental
decision-making and guarantees legal procedures to compel access
out leaded gasoline and begin to reduce lead from other sources
poisoning is one of the world's worst environmental health problems.
20 percent of the gasoline sold today is leaded, the largest source
of environmental contamination and human exposure to lead.
Summit of the Americas Partnership for Pollution Prevention helped
accelerate and secure a hemispheric-wide phase out of leaded gasoline.
This model can help inform a global campaign.
addition to phasing out lead, countries should also identify other
major sources of environmental lead contamination and reduce them.
take-back legislation for electronic products and develop national
recovery plans for toxic metals.
toxic materials from the waste stream reduces the toxicity of
incinerated and land filled wastes and promotes recovery of these
toxics elements. The huge increase in electronic wastes is a particularly
should develop plans to address the collection, storage and recycling
or recovery of toxic wastes like used lead acid batteries, waste
oils, and metal-containing industrial, municipal, and hospital
May 2001, the European Parliament approved a proposal requiring
producers to take-back electronic waste and to phase-out some
of the most toxic chemicals used in electronics manufacturing
in the next few years.
approved an electric appliance recycling law which will soon include
computers. Several Japanese manufacturers are now designing computers
and electronics with safer materials and fewer chemicals so they
pose less risk throughout their lifecycle.
research on and increase use of economic incentives for alternative
materials and environmentally sound methods of waste disposal.
Philippines and the Slovak Republic are testing the use of alternative
non-incineration technologies to destroy stockpiles of POPs in
their countries in ways that do not create and emit toxic byproducts
in the process. These pilot programs will set a model for other
countries to follow.
countries have reduced their consumption of leaded gasoline by
taxing it at a higher rate than unleaded gas. Similar taxes have
been effective in reducing the use of highly toxic pesticides.
labeling of toxic materials in consumer products.
labeling systems can extend the public's right-to-know about toxic
materials used in consumer products, empowering consumers to refuse
to buy products containing particular toxics. Labeling systems
are already in use for a number of products, including PVC-free
toys, mercury-free thermometers, organically grown cotton T-shirts,
and chlorine-free bleached paper.
Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Molly O'Meara Sheehan
for a web discussion about the newest Worldwatch release, Vital
Signs 2002: The trends that are shaping our future on June 28.
Among the more than 50 social, economic and environmental trends
Vital Signs covers every year, data in the 2002 edition indicates
that the new economy can be just as polluting and toxics-heavy
as the old economy. To join in, please visit: http://www.worldwatch.org/live/on
Friday, June 28 from 12:00-1:00 EST (17:00-18:00 GMT)
more information about Vital Signs, please visit the Worldwatch
website at http://www.worldwatch.org/
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