Scientists today started reviewing some everyday and industrial chemicals used in such products as carpets and medical equipment to determine whether they should be added to a United Nations-backed major treaty banning hazardous chemicals.
“Chemicals have contributed to human well-being across a range of areas from medicine and foodstuffs to agriculture and industrial processes,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), under whose auspices the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was negotiated.
“However, as science gains greater insight into their effects, we are fast understanding that some substances now pose real risks to humans and the wider environment, often invulnerable communities such as can be found in parts of the Arctic. Eliminating, restricting and accelerating a switch to better alternatives must be our goal.”
Twelve chemicals – dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” – are already on the Convention’s list, including nine pesticides: aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene.
Five other substances have already been shortlisted, and the POPs Review Committee has gathered in Geneva to assess four more for possible elimination.
Most of these nine of chemicals are used in consumer products, such as flame retardants in textiles and carpets, while some are employed for photo imaging and in fire-fighting foam.
Every human in the world carries in his or her body traces of POPs, which circulate globally through a process known as the “grasshopper effect” and include such chemicals as dioxins, furans, DDT and PCBs, which are agents that that can kill people, damage the nervous and immune systems, cause cancer and reproductive disorders and interfere with normal infant and child development.
POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated process of evaporation and deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source. Though not soluble in water, they are readily absorbed in fatty tissue, where concentrations can become magnified by up to 70,000 times the background levels. Fish, predatory birds and mammals in the food chain absorb them. When they travel, POPs go with them.