Intervenor: Vol 23. No 3 July - September 1998

A UN Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants

In late June 1998, almost 100 countries and over 150 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered in Montreal for an opening round of negotiations to draft a global, United Nations-sponsored treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The POPs of immediate concern in this initiative have been well known for many years as some of the worst "bad actor" substances in existence. Chemicals such as dioxins, furans, PCBs, and pesticides such as DDT, chlordane and toxaphene are all on an initial list of twelve being considered by the UN (United Nations) for action.

POPs such as these are dangerous substances that tend to break down slowly, travel through air and water to regions far distant from their original sources, build up in the tissues of organisms, and concentrate up the food chain.

POPs have the potential to injure humans and wildlife even at low concentrations. Evidence has indicated that POPs have affected high predator species.

Such effects include:

  • reproductive failure and population decline; 
  • feminization of males and masculinization of females;
  • abnormally functioning thyroid glands and other hormone system dysfunctions; 
  • compromised immune systems;
  • behavioural abnormalities;
  • tumours and cancers; and 
  • birth defects.

This UN initiative is the result of many years of work for many NGOs and some governments who recognize the threat that POPs pose to the health-physically, culturally and socially-of many peoples, and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Canada is a driving force for a POPs treaty.

The fact that Canada was the setting for the first negotiation was no accident-nowhere on earth have the dangers of POPs been better studied and publicized than in the Great Lakes and Canadian Arctic. The Canadian government has pumped millions of dollars into researching where POPs come from, how they get into ecosystems, where they end up (eg, in the tissues of humans and other top predators) and what their effects are.

Canada's arctic peoples-especially the Inuit-are exposed to certain POPs at levels much higher (sometimes ten times higher or more) than comparable populations in southern Canada. This is despite the fact that Inuit live many thousands of kilometres from virtually all sources of POPs. It has been shown that POPs can evaporate at their release point in the environment and condense again at a point sometimes many hundreds of kilometres away. This pattern-called the grasshopper effect-can repeat itself multiple times until the substance reaches the Arctic. Once there, the Arctic acts as a kind of cold trap. Evaporation, if it occurs at all, does so much more slowly. The substance is then taken up into the ecosystem.

In the Great Lakes, local sources of POPs are certainly a greater concern, thanks to the preponderance of industrial activity. Distant sources can also have an effect, however. DDT levels in Great Lakes sediments, for example, decreased slowly, if at all, after it was banned in Canada and the United States. It has been determined that DDT still in use in countries like Mexico is making its way north on air currents to the Great Lakes basin.

The Great Lakes region is one of the best-documented regions in the world regarding the effects of POPs. Wildlife have been impacted tremendously by POPs-herring gulls, cormorants, bald eagles, mink, otter and even humans have showed effects associated with the presence of DDT, PCBs, mirex and other POPs. Such effects include the obvious (such as malformed limbs and beaks in waterfowl), and the subtle-female-female pairings of nesting herring gulls, for example. In humans the effects include decreased attention span in children whose mothers eat Great Lakes fish.

Canada's international reputation belies its lack of domestic action on POPs

The Canadian government has done a laudable job of publicizing the plight of the Arctic and Great Lakes among countries considering action on POPs-in fact, Canada can be considered to be a driving force for a treaty. This high level of international activity, unfortunately, is not matched by domestic action on POPs. While most of the twelve POPs on the initial UN list for action have been banned in Canada, the real challenge will be how additional substances will be added to the original list of twelve. There are tens of thousands of potentially harmful chemicals being produced today, and while these twelve are among the worst, a treaty that lacks a dynamic process for adding substances to the list for action internationally will do little to protect human health and the environment.

Unfortunately, Canada's abysmal domestic framework for dealing with toxic substances will greatly constrain it from advocating a strong process for adding substances to the POPs treaty list. The federal Toxic Substances Management Policy (TSMP) and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) prevent meaningful action on anything but the most harmful of substances. Criteria for persistence in the environment, ability to bioaccumulate in an organism, and proven release outside of the workplace are all so narrowly written in the current TSMP and CEPA that only a handful of substances-such as those already on the POPs list-will be supportable for action by Canada.

Opportunities for change

Canada can move now to exert its leadership on the POPs issue in a number of ways. A new CEPA (Bill C-32) is before Parliament. In its current form, however, it merely codifies the TSMP. CELA, the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations have proposed changes to CEPA that would enable other substances-such as endocrine disruptors-to be acted upon domestically. Secondly, the Government of Canada could exert bold leadership internationally by committing to a process for adding new substances to the POPs list that goes well beyond the small list it has acted upon domestically. This would be consistent with Canada's acknowledged leadership on the issue, and would prevent its certain erosion.

At present, Canada is headed down a road where its hard-fought gains-in the form of a POPs treaty-are being seriously undermined by its weak domestic record. Political intervention is necessary at the highest level to put the government back on track. The environment and its human inhabitants deserve no less.

Craig Boljkovac has been on the CELA Board since 1991. He currently works on toxics issues full-time in Ottawa for World Wildlife Fund Canada.

For More Information:
International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network
World Wildlife Fund Canada on endocrine disruptors

DDTPesticide - still widely used in southern countries for malaria control
  • Eggshell thinning in birds
  • associated with chronic human health effects
  • endocrine system disruptor
PCBsCoolant in electrical transformers; heat exchange fluid; additive in paints, plastics and paper
  • lethal to fish at high doses
  • reproductive failures in wildlife
  • associated with immune system suppression, behavioural abnormalities and developmental problems in humans
  • highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life
  • frog embryos exhibit spinal deformities
  • highly toxic to fish
  • toxic to humans, fish and other wildlife
  • toxic to humans and wildlife
  • possible human carcinogen
  • may affect human immune system
  • toxic to plants, crustaceans and fish
  • possible human carcinogen
Toxaphene Insecticide
  • highly toxic to fish
  • possible human carcinogen
DioxinsUnintentional by-product of combustion; pesticide manufacture
  • toxic to wildlife
  • associated with enzyme disorders, immune system disorders, chloracne and cancer in humans
FuransUnintentional by-product of combustion; PCB manufacture; pesticide manufacture
  • effects similar to dioxins
  • possible human carcinogen
  • associated with bird population declines
  • lethal to mink, rats, & rabbits
  • adverse behavioural changes and lowered reproductive success in wildlife
  • possible human carcinogen
HexachlorobenzeneFungicide; industrial solvent; by-product
  • lethal to some wildlife
  • associated with adverse reproductive effects in wildlife
  • accidental poisonings in humans resulted in wide range of effects