POPs Are the Weasels

September 17, 1999

By Michael Jessen

They go by the innocent name of POPs. They were once helpful; now they're recognized as deadly and the world community is desperately trying to control them.

POPs are persistent organic pollutants - hand-me-down poisons that threaten people and wildlife. Their real names are aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, DDT, PCB, dioxin, and furan.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that exposure to very low doses of certain POPs can lead to cancer, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, diseases of the immune system, reproductive disorders and interference with normal infant and child development.

All 12 targeted POPs have also been recently identified as "endocrine disruptors," chemicals that can interfere with the body's own hormones. Such hormone-disrupting persistent contaminants can be hazardous at extremely low doses and pose a particular danger to those exposed in the womb. During prenatal life, endocrine disruptors can alter development and undermine the ability to learn, to fight off disease, and to reproduce.

Yet these chemicals that were developed to control disease, increase food production, and improve our standard of living are proving hard to give up.

Take the case of DDT. Discovered in 1939, it became well known as a broad-spectrum insecticide, meaning that it is toxic to many different genera and species of insects. One of the earliest recognized benefits of DDT was its "residual action" - the long duration of its toxic effect.

By 1962, evidence of DDT's persistence, bioaccumulation in food chains, accumulation in human body fat, excretion in human milk, and other estrogenic properties was detailed in Rachel Carson's classic environmental alert "Silent Spring". Ten years later it was banned in the U.S. and Canada, but it is still in use as close as Mexico to combat malaria. It is still legal to import DDT into Switzerland, a country which last week hosted the third International Negotiating Committee (INC-3) seeking to find ways of regulating these 12 dangerous chemicals before the end of next year!

While most POPs have been banned or severely restricted in Canada for years, the federal government admits POPs are currently entering the Canadian environment from foreign sources in North and Central America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. After their release into the environment, POPs travel in multiple cycles of evaporation, transport by air, and condensation. Called the grasshopper effect, this process allows POPs to travel great distances quickly.

In the cold climate of the Arctic, low evaporation rates trap POPs, and so they enter the food chain. In Canada, the highest concentrations of POPs are found in the Arctic, Great Lakes, and St. Lawrence basin. Scientific evidence shows levels of PCBs in the blood of some Inuit women are higher than Health Canada guidelines, and levels of certain POPs in breast milk have been found up to nine times higher than in women who live in southern Canada.

Delegates from more than 110 nations as well as representatives from United Nations agencies, industry and non-governmental organizations were aware of all this information when they met in Geneva for a week-long negotiating session September 6 to 11. The Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development provided daily progress reports in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. (Free subscription to the bulletins can be obtained via e-mail by contacting the reporting service at enb@iisd.org.)

While advances were made on measures to reduce or eliminate releases, national implementation plans, the process for adding chemicals, and information exchange, some major hurdles are still to be overcome. Consensus on issues such as disposal of chemical stockpiles, public health emergency exemptions, trade of banned chemicals and verification and compliance will be wrestled with at the next planned negotiating session slated for Bonn, Germany in March 2000. A fifth meeting to ratify an agreement is scheduled for South Africa late next year.

Two non-governmental organizations - the World Wildlife Fund and Physicians for Social Responsibility - are taking lead roles in the fight to eliminate the use of POPs. The WWF cites scientific evidence on the effects of persistent contaminants on wildlife, including beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River, alligators in Florida's Lake Apopka, Great Lakes trout, and mink and otter populations in Europe and the U.S.

Physicians for Social Responsibility says most North Americans today carry detectable background levels of POPs in their bodies and that people are exposed to POPs primarily through food consumption. Physicians favour following the precautionary principle - take preventive, anticipatory measures even though some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

The WWF, Greenpeace, and even physicians have declared POPs guilty of harming humans and wildlife. Despite calling for urgent global action to reduce and eliminate the release of POPs into the environment, the international community requires two more meetings to bring in the verdict and the sentence.

ONE SMALL STEP - World Wildlife Fund Canada (www.wwfcanada.org/) has 10 actions people can take to reduce exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals: eat lower on the food chain; do not microwave in plastic; do not use pesticides; quit smoking; treat dead batteries as hazardous waste; wash hands, floors and windowsills frequently; avoid "super-strength" specialty cleaners; avoid mercury fillings; read labels and call 1-800 numbers for information on product formulations; write or call local, provincial and federal politicians, asking them to take action to reduce hormone-disrupting chemicals in our environment.

The global toxics campaign of the World Wildlife Fund can be found at www.worldwildlife.org/toxics. Physicians For Social Responsibility can be found at www.psr.org/ Theo Colbrun, a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers wrote THE book on hormone-disrupting chemicals entitled "Our Stolen Future" which is now available in paperback. How we have failed to protect ourselves, and especially our children, from pesticide contamination of food, soil, water, and air is detailed in John Wargo's book "Our Children's Toxic Legacy," second edition, Yale University Press, 1998.

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