Intervenor: Vol 25. No 1 January - March 2000

Trying To Eliminate The Dirty Dozen: The POPS Treaty in Bonn

During March 20 to 25, I was the NGO representative on the Canadian delegation to the POPs Treaty negotiations in Bonn, Germany. This was the fourth negotiating session for a legally binding international treaty that would deal with the "dirty dozen" persistent organic pollutants-substances such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins. The meeting was held in the former German Parliament-in late 1999, the German Parliament was moved to Berlin. This fourth negotiating session (with others held in Montreal, Nairobi and Geneva) was supposed to deal with some of the more contentious issues. However, many of these issue were left unresolved and are now slated to be dealt with at the fifth and final negotiating session in South Africa.

One of the tougher issues is whether all ten of the products (dioxins and furans are by-products) will be banned or severely restricted. In particular, DDT has remained controversial since some countries state that they still need to use this substance to control malaria. The issue is how soon cost-effective alternatives will be made available. The DDT debate is indeed instructive for many environmental issues. The dangers of DDT were aptly articulated by Rachel Carson in 1962 with the publication of her book, Silent Spring. Almost 30 years later, the global arena is finally debating the feasibility and time-frames for eliminating this substance.

Another thorny issue deals with what should be the overall goal with respect to "by-products,"-those substances that are created as a result of some other process, such as dioxins and furans. Should the treaty stipulate that the release of these substances be reduced or should the goal be elimination? There is clearly no consensus on this point. Non-governmental organizations are calling for complete elimination while various countries are alleging that the releases of such substances can only be reduced over time. The international debate over reduction versus elimination is a replay of the debate in Canada last year during the passage of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Unfortunately, the industry lobby persuaded the government to water down the section on elimination, and so CEPA speaks of "virtual elimination" in a way which ensures even the most dangerous substances will not be phased out.

Further, there are a whole array of issues concerning the implementation of the POPs Treaty. Developing countries, in order to implement the Treaty, need considerable resources to achieve the Treaty's objectives. The extent of financial resources and the vehicle to deliver or distribute these resources remain of profound importance.

Another issue that will have to be dealt with at the fifth negotiating session relates to how the precautionary principle will be recognized in the treaty. As you may recall, that too was a fractious issue in the CEPA debate in Canada which ended in a dilution of the precautionary principle.

Canada can and should play a significant role in attempting to assist both northern and southern countries to find the way forward to an international POPs Treaty that is truly tough on twelve of the most poisonous substances we know. For Canada to do this, however, will take more political will and environmental ethic than the government demonstrated during the CEPA debate.

The Dirty Dozen
12 Persistent Organic Pollutants:

  • DDT Pesticide - still widely used in southern countries for malaria control.
  • PCBs - Coolant in electrical transformers; heat exchange fluid; additive in paints, plastics and paper.
  • Dieldrin - Insecticide.
  • Endrin - Insecticide.
  • Aldrin - Insecticide.
  • Chlordane - Insecticide.
  • Mirex - Insecticide; fire retardant.
  • Toxaphene - Insecticide.
  • Dioxins - Unintentional by-product of combustion; pesticide. manufacture.
  • Furans - Unintentional by-product of combustion; PCB manufacture; pesticide manufacture.
  • Heptachlor - Insecticide.
  • Hexachlorobenzene - Fungicide; industrial solvent; by-product.


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Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA