Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#703 - U.S. Undermines POPs Treaty, 12-Jul-2000

by Charlie Cray*

The world is moving slowly toward a groundbreaking international
treaty aimed at controlling or eliminating 12 Persistent Organic
Pollutants (POPS), including 8 pesticides (DDT, aldrin,
chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene),
two industrial chemicals (hexachlorobenzene and polychlorinated
biphenyls [PCBs]), and two industrial byproducts (dioxin and
furans). See REHW #601. The treaty is scheduled to be signed in
Stockholm in May of 2001. However, there is a fly in the
ointment: the Clinton/Gore administration seems willing to
derail the treaty if it doesn't get its way on many particulars,
most of which reflect the chemical industry's agenda.

The fourth session of the POPs Intergovernmental Negotiating
Committee (INC-4) was held in Bonn March 20-25. INC-5 -- the
final negotiation -- is planned for December in South
Africa.[1,2]

POPs are chemicals which persist and bioaccumulate and therefore
have the potential to harm human health and the environment. The
initial twelve POPs are all chlorinated compounds. More
chemicals are expected to be added to the list once the treaty
is signed.

POPs can be found almost everywhere on the planet, in all of our
bodies and in much of our food.[3] In addition, because they
spontaneously migrate towards the colder regions of the planet,
POPs pose a critical threat to northern indigenous people, whose
survival, health and well being depend on their traditional
relationship with the ecosystem and the food it provides. Some
of the most highly exposed populations are indigenous people
living in polar regions far from major POPs sources. For
example, the Inuit living on Baffin Island carry seven times as
many PCBs in their bodies as people living in lower
latitudes.[4]

After four POPs negotiating meetings, much of the treaty text
remains under negotiation. More than anything else, this
reflects the fact that the U.S. and a handful of its allies --Canada,
Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea -- have
used the negotiations to protect polluting industries by
insisting on loopholes and exemptions that would seriously
weaken the treaty.[5] As one observer noted, these countries
"have become a significant part of the problem, not the
solution,"[5] pushing for treaty language that would not create
any real obligations for industrialized nations while placing
serious burdens on developing countries.

The U.S. position was outlined in a U.S. State Department
communique to the European Union, leaked to Greenpeace before
INC-4, and it was evident in the negotiating stance of the U.S.
delegation at INC-4[6]:

1. Although the U.S. approves use of the word "elimination" in
the treaty's preamble and objective, it wants such language
removed from the text of the treaty, including the section
addressing industrial by-products like dioxin.[7] By
interpreting "elimination" to mean reduction to zero, the U.S.
paints this as an unrealistic goal for dioxin. The European
Union (EU) argues, in contrast, that "elimination" does not mean
reduction to zero but instead means preventing dioxins from
being formed in various human activities. This kind of "source
elimination" would give priority to pollution prevention such as
process and feedstock changes and materials substitution instead
of managing dioxins after they have been created.

Clearly, the U.S. position is predicated upon an outdated faith
in pollution controls, including expensive high-temperature
incineration. This capital-intensive approach to chemical
management is impractical for most developing countries.
Furthermore, industrial experience in the U.S. and elsewhere
demonstrates beyond doubt that "state of the art" incinerators
are, themselves, major sources of POPs.

Further, the U.S. end-of-pipe approach cannot control dioxins
produced during accidental fires and open-barrel burning of PVC
plastics -- acknowledged by EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency] as a major source of dioxins in the U.S. and likely an
even greater source in developing nations where, for example,
PVC is burned off electrical wiring to recover copper.8]

Thus, because the U.S. chemical industry doesn't want to have to
comply with any new pollution prevention mandates, the
Clinton/Gore administration refuses to accept "materials
substitution" language proposed by other countries as a strategy
for avoiding POPs.

All of this is consistent with the position of the U.S. EPA. EPA
recently declared that the cancer hazard from dioxin exposure in
U.S. citizens runs as high as 1 in 100.[9] Yet rather than
advocating elimination of many known dioxin sources, EPA points
to recently-declining levels of dioxin in humans and suggests
that Americans should adopt a low-fat diet to reduce their
dioxin exposure.

Kip Howlett, executive director of the Chlorine Chemistry
Council (CCC), recently gloated to CHEMICAL WEEK that the "EPA
has told CCC that it would not impose dioxin emission
regulations on the chlorine industry."[10] In effect, EPA has
portrayed an issue of political power as a lifestyle issue,
transferring responsibility away from dioxin's source in the
chemical industry and putting it on innocent citizens. It is a
classic tactic, "blame the victim."

2. The U.S. has also proposed adding "where practical" to weaken
specific parts of the treaty text, and has sponsored a whole
slew of "general exemptions" -- loopholes that would undermine
the goal of elimination. These exemptions would allow POPs to
show up as low-level ("de minimus") contaminants in products,
allow their use in "closed systems" (e.g., PCBs in electrical
transformers), and as "on-site intermediates." Many people will
be harmed if this U.S. language is adopted.

3. The U.S. is pushing to weaken the force of the Precautionary
Principle in the POPs treaty. (See REHW #586.) According to one
observer at INC-4, the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan and Australia
seem "determined to ignore the euphoria with the recent[ly]
completed Biosafety Protocol...where the Precautionary Principle
is in the text."[1,pg.13] The U.S. and its allies were again in
the minority, advocating that the Precautionary Principle be
placed only in the preamble, to diminish its legal force.

The chemical industry strongly opposes placing the Precautionary
Principle in the treaty's section on new chemicals being
evaluated for possible addition to the POPs list. Since
scientific certainty about damage from most chemicals is, and
will remain, elusive, the Precautionary Principle is key when
evaluating the weight of evidence.

4. So far, the U.S. and its allies have opposed language that
would impose financial obligations on rich nations to assist
countries that could not otherwise afford to comply with the
treaty. The leaked U.S. State Department communique suggests
that the U.S. is willing to scuttle the entire treaty on this
point.[6]

Many developing countries welcome a strong POPs treaty precisely
because they believe it can strengthen their capacity to protect
human health and their environment. It is well known, however,
that many countries cannot eliminate POPs without significant
external financial and/or technical assistance. Wealthier
countries will have to provide much-needed resources.

As United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Executive
Director Klaus Topfer stressed at INC-4, POPs are an example of
exporting the disadvantages of economic growth to developing
countries,[1,pg.2] which suffer from some of the most severe and
widespread POPs contamination. The U.S. and other developed
nations are obligated to provide assistance, not only because
they can afford to, but because historically they exported POPs
and POPs-generating technologies to developing countries in the
first place. For instance, as part of the "green revolution,"
chemical companies from the U.S. and Europe (with the assistance
of U.S. and EU-dominated development banks and foundations)
pressured developing nations to use DDT and other pesticides
shortly after World War II. To this day, western-based
multinational corporations continue to promote POPs-generating
materials and technologies in developing nations (e.g., vinyl
production facilities and chlorine-based paper production).

U.S. citizens also have a self-interest in assisting developing
nations because Americans' health and environment are injured by
POPs that enter the environment in far off countries (especially
the tropical regions of the world) and eventually make their way
north. The pesticide circle of poison -- whereby pesticides that
are banned in this country still reach us through the air or in
our food -- is but one example.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government strongly opposes treaty
language that would allow the treaty's Conference of the Parties
to impose financial obligations on industrialized nations.
Likewise the U.S. opposes any new limits on the way
transnational corporations can do business.

Ultimately, financial obligations should be transferred to
companies that make and use POPs. The "Polluter Pays" principle,
if properly applied, would generate the necessary funds to help
developing countries find alternatives to POPs (e.g., finding
effective substitutes for DDT in combating malaria). Taxing
specific industrial processes would ensure that polluters,
rather than governments or average taxpayers, would bear the
financial burden.

At this point, it is unrealistic to expect the treaty to carry a
"Polluter Pays" provision -- the delegates know that financial
obligations have nearly scuttled previous international
agreements. However, the proposed POPs treaty wouldn't stop
anyone from enacting such a policy later.

The good news is that there is still potential for a strong,
effective POPs treaty. Many countries in the EU, Africa and Asia
are angry about the U.S.'s position on many of these issues. Yet
as the World Wildlife Fund (a treaty observer) says, "time is
running out. Substantial intersessional deliberations -- among
governments as well as political caucus groups -- are critical
to ensuring that INC-5 concludes with a productive and
successful outcome...[W]ithout a phase out and elimination goal
for intentional and by-product POPs, the treaty threatens to
misdirect our efforts and subject developing nations to the same
mistakes industrialized countries have already made."

The 10-month period between now and May 2001 will be a crucial
time for the POPs negotiations, in which a groundbreaking
environmental and public health treaty will be either won or
lost. To keep up with the latest developments of the POPs treaty
and figure out what you can do to build pressure for success,
contact either the International POPs Elimination Network
(www.ipen.org), visit the Stop POPs web site (www.stoppops.org),
and/or come to Berkeley, California on August 10-13 for the 4th
People's Dioxin Action Summit (see www.chej.org).

=====

*Charlie Cray is associate editor of the MULTINATIONAL MONITOR
(www.essential.org/monitor/).

[1] EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN Vol. 15, No. 34 (March 27,
2000). Available at:
http://www.iisd.ca/linkages/download/pdf/enb1534e.pdf.

[2] See http://www.ipen.org/.

[3] See Michelle Allsopp and others, A RECIPE FOR DISASTER: A
REVIEW OF PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS IN FOOD (Exeter, UK:
Greenpeace Research Laboratories, March 2000). ISBN
90-73361-63-X. Available at www.greenpeace.org/~toxics/ under
"reports."

[4] Indigenous Environmental Network, "Indigenous Peoples and
POPs" (Briefing paper for INC-4), February 2000; available at
http://www.alphacdc.com/ien/pops_bonn_ien11.html. Also see "Drum
Beat for Mother Earth: Persistent Organic Pollutants Threatening
Indigenous Peoples," a video by the Indigenous Environmental
Network and Greenpeace, 1999. Available from Greenpeace USA;
phone 800-326-0959.

[5] For more on the obstructive role of the US and its ally
countries in POPs negotiations and other global treaties see:
Kevin Stairs, THE OBSTRUCTIVE ROLE OF THE U.S., CANADA, AND
AUSTRALIA IN NEGOTIATING INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY AND
LAW MAKING (Greenpeace International. Feb. 2000). Available at
www.greenpeace.org/~toxics under "reports."

[6] U.S. Department of State, "U.S. Concern Over POPs
Negotiations." A one-page undated memo circulated to various
governments prior to INC-4.

[7] For an in-depth discussion of strategies to eliminate dioxin
and other POPs see Pat Costner, DIOXIN ELIMINATION: A GLOBAL
IMPERATIVE (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Greenpeace
International, March, 2000). ISBN 90-73361-55-9. Available at
www.greenpeace.org/~toxics under "reports."

[8] Paul M. Lemieux, EVALUATION OF EMISSIONS FROM THE OPEN
BURNING OF HOUSEHOLD WASTE IN BARRELS. VOLUME 1. TECHNICAL REPORT
[EPA-600/R-97-134A] (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, November
1997). Available at www.epa.gov/ttn/catc/dir1/barlbrn1.pdf.

[9] EPA's Dioxin Reassessment is available online at
http://www.epa.gov/ncea/pdfs/dioxin/dioxreass.htm; key findings
can be found at http://www.chej.org/

[10] Neil Franz, "EPA Sets Course to Complete Dioxin
Reassessment," CHEMICAL WEEK , June 21, 2000, pg. 18.