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Back Issues

The Planet
Landmark Treat Bans 'Dirty Dozen' Toxic Chemicals in 122 Nations

The beginning of the end for DDT, PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants

By Jenny Coyle

It's a shameful fact, said Michael Gregory, that the world's deadliest poisons - like DDT and PCBs - can be found in the deep tissue of polar bears, whales and other creatures that inhabit remote landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic, far from human settlement.

Gregory represents the Sierra Club in a United Nations process to stop the production and use of these toxic chemicals, dubbed POPS - persistent organic pollutants. Most of them are pesticides or by-products of combustion and industrial processes, and they share five traits: they are toxic; they contain chlorine; they are persistent, resisting the processes that break down some contaminants; they accumulate in body fat and are passed from mother to fetus; and they are easily transported from their point of release throughout the biosphere - even as far as the polar regions - on wind and water currents.

On Dec. 10, 2000, after three years of negotiations, delegates from 122 nations who had gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, agreed to an internationally binding treaty on POPS. The pact addresses the worst 12, called "the dirty dozen."

Gregory was there, along with representatives from more than 300 other groups in a coalition called the International POPS Elimination Network.

"For those of us who have been working since the '60s to ban these chemicals, this is the highest rung of the ladder," said the Arizona activist. "We've had victories, but this one is on a global scale. It's a major step forward in eliminating these toxins worldwide." In addition to DDT and PCBs, the list includes aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans.

"Most of these have been previously banned or severely restricted in the United States and other industrialized nations, but we need a global ban because of the way these chemicals find their way to places like Antarctica," said Gregory. "We need to stop their production and use, and destroy what we've accumulated."

That's what the treaty will do once it's signed, ratified and implemented. And that's where activists are needed, Gregory said.

"Fortunately, the treaty enjoys strong, widespread support from all stakeholders, including government, industry associations and non-governmental organizations," he said. "The United States is expected to sign it in May along with other nations at a U.N. diplomatic conference in Stockholm. But the pact won't go into force until it's ratified by at least 50 nations - in our case by the Senate."

Gregory also explained that putting the treaty to work, especially in the non-industrialized nations, will take money - for record-keeping and developing alternatives to these chemicals, for instance. Then, too, stockpiles of the chemicals must be destroyed using means other than incineration, but many non-industrialized nations don't have access to such technology.

The principal U.N. funding mechanism to implement the POPS treaty and provide financial assistance is in place - it's called the Global Environmental Facility - but the United States currently owes it $100 million in back dues. In order to ensure early implementation of the treaty once it's ratified, the United States must pay its debt and begin making new payments agreed to by the industrialized nations in Johannesburg.

"Having worked on this issue for 30 years, I can tell you that this treaty is the best hope we have of clearing these chemicals, and others in the future, from our planet," said Gregory. "The United States is already out in front by having banned many on the 'dirty dozen' list. But to stay in the lead we must ratify the treaty and pay off our debt to ensure its speedy implementation."

Take Action

Write your senators and tell them that it's not enough for a few countries to ban the production and use of the most deadly toxic chemicals - the global community must agree to do so. Ask them to ratify the POPS treaty as soon as possible after it is signed in May. Urge them to ensure early implementation of the treaty by working with the Bush administration to pay off the nation's debt to the Global Environmental Facility, and to make future payments on time. Send the letter to your senators at U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510.


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