From Rio to Johannesburg:
the Use of Toxic Chemicals Advances Health and Sustainable
DC - June 25, 2002 - The 2001 Stockholm Convention on
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is one of the major achievements
growing out of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Signatories
agreed to phase out and limit production of 12 POPs, long-lived
toxic chemicals that cause biological havoc as they bioaccumulatecollect
and concentratein the food chain. The treaty outlines
key principles for a less toxic world, including the prevention
of new toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals; reduction
of existing ones; and substitution with less dangerous materials.
The challenge at Johannesburg and beyond is to further apply
the principles of prevention, reduction, and substitution
to all toxic chemicals.
present, the Stockholm Treaty covers only 12 chemicals: nine
pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the industrial
byproducts dioxins and furans. The problem is that there is
very little basic health or environmental information for
the majority of 80,000 chemical compounds on the market today.
Information about the effects of mixtures of these compounds
is even scarcer. And manufacturers are introducing an estimated
1,000 new chemicals each year.
the Stockholm Convention, authorities and communities have
begun to adopt a proactive approach that seeks to avoid using
toxic chemicals in the first place. This is a key step to
keeping toxic chemicals out of our environment, our food,
and our bodies.
off the toxics treadmill requires a combination of strong,
binding laws and commitments; greater public participation;
industrial innovation; and increased consumer demand for toxic-free
products and processes. To maintain the recent momentum in
toxics use reduction, governments, companies, and NGOs must
work together to implement treaties, quickly phase out leaded
gasoline, address toxic waste, and promote product labeling.
are living with the legacy of several decades' worth of toxic
Moreover, recent scientific discoveries have heightened concern
about the cumulative effects of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Scientists have shown that irreversible health effects occur
at levels below current safe levels. Pesticides
and dioxins can impair the bodys immune and reproductive
systems, while heavy metals such as lead and mercury impede
cognitive and physical development. Toxic chemicals travel
the globe and threaten the health of humans and wildlife in
some of the worlds most remote regions:
breast milk is among the most contaminated foods on Earth.
Chlorinated pesticides, PCBs, lead, mercury, and other bioaccumulative
toxins have been found in breast milk, which is transferred
by the mother to nursing infants.
of people who eat fish worldwideespecially women of
childbearing age and childrenare at risk from mercury
poisoning, which can lead to brain defects, neurological
disorders, and loss of cognitive skills. Mercury is emitted
from fossil fuel burning, waste disposal, mining, and other
a 64-percent drop in annual global atmospheric emissions
of lead since 1983, several million adults and children
suffer the adverse health effects of lead poisoning, including
impaired mental and physical development. In the U.S. alone,
childhood lead poisoning is estimated to cost some $43 billion
and computer wastes are growing faster than any other type
of hazardous waste. The computer industry is the most chemically
intense in the world, using 500-1,000 different chemicals,
many of them highly toxic, including arsenic, cadmium, lead,
toxic pesticides are routinely used to control disease carrying-pests
in agriculture, homes, businesses, and public health campaigns.
Improper storage and misuse of such chemicals can create
problems ranging from water and soil degradation to human
PRIORITIES FOR JOHANNESBURG AND BEYOND
and implement global toxics and waste treaties.
some of the worlds most toxic chemicals will remove
them from the environment and lay the groundwork to phase
out similar compounds. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent
Organic Pollutants eliminates or severely restricts the
production and use of 12 POPs, ensures environmentally sound
management of POPs waste, and prevents new POPs from being
introduced. The treaty needs to be ratified by 50 countries
to enter into force. Eleven parties had ratified the treaty
as of 5 June 2002.
need to ratify the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed
Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals
and Pesticides in International Trade. The Convention establishes
a roster of chemicals that have been banned or restricted
by countries. Governments will be able to use this information
in making decisions about accepting or refusing shipments
of chemicals on the list. The convention needs to be ratified
by 50 parties to enter into force. As of 31 May 2002, 22
parties had ratified the convention.
hazardous waste trade is critical to forcing countries to
deal with the waste they generate rather than shipping it
elsewhere. The 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary
Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was designed
to reduce hazardous waste trafficking, to promote disposal
close to the site of origin, and to prohibit trade with
countries that lack the capacity to manage wastes in an
environmentally sound manner. The 1995 Basel Ban Amendment
bans the export of hazardous waste from rich to poorer countries.
The Convention is already in force, with 151 parties. The
Amendment needs 62 parties to enter into force. As of 31
May 2002, 30 parties had ratified the Amendment.
companies to report and monitor their use and release of toxic
chemicals, and mandate public access to this data.
about environmental releases from industrial facilities pinpoints
the most affected communities and the most polluting industries,
thereby identifying targets for action. Agenda 21 called for
nations to adopt national Pollution Release and Transfer Registries
(PRTR) to track chemicals. Faced with fierce opposition from
manufacturers, fewer than 20 nations have set up PRTRs.
in Western and Eastern Europe, 28 countries have agreed to
a more far-reaching agreement that provides for greater government
accountability, transparency, and responsiveness in providing
information about toxics. This regional agreement, the Aarhus
Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation
in Decision-Making and Access to Justice, came into effect
in October 2001. This convention grants explicit rights to
the public to participate in governmental decision-making
and guarantees legal procedures to compel access to information.
Phase out leaded gasoline and begin to reduce lead from
other sources by 2005.
poisoning is one of the worlds worst environmental health
20 percent of the gasoline sold today is leaded, the largest
source of environmental contamination and human exposure
Summit of the Americas Partnership for Pollution Prevention
helped accelerate and secure a hemispheric-wide phase out
of leaded gasoline. This model can help inform a global
addition to phasing out lead, countries should also identify
other major sources of environmental lead contamination
and reduce them.
take-back legislation for electronic products and develop
national recovery plans for toxic metals.
toxic materials from the waste stream reduces the toxicity
of incinerated and land filled wastes and promotes recovery
of these toxics elements. The huge increase in electronic
wastes is a particularly pressing problem.
should develop plans to address the collection, storage
and recycling or recovery of toxic wastes like used lead
acid batteries, waste oils, and metal-containing industrial,
municipal, and hospital wastes.
May 2001, the European Parliament approved a proposal requiring
producers to take-back electronic waste and to phase-out
some of the most toxic chemicals used in electronics manufacturing
in the next few years.
approved an electric appliance recycling law which will
soon include computers. Several Japanese manufacturers are
now designing computers and electronics with safer materials
and fewer chemicals so they pose less risk throughout their
research on and increase use of economic incentives for alternative
materials and environmentally sound methods of waste disposal.
Philippines and the Slovak Republic are testing the use
of alternative non-incineration technologies to destroy
stockpiles of POPs in their countries in ways that do not
create and emit toxic byproducts in the process. These pilot
programs will set a model for other countries to follow.
countries have reduced their consumption of leaded gasoline
by taxing it at a higher rate than unleaded gas. Similar
taxes have been effective in reducing the use of highly
labeling of toxic materials in consumer products.
Product labeling systems can extend the publics right-to-know
about toxic materials used in consumer products, empowering
consumers to refuse to buy products containing particular
toxics. Labeling systems are already in use for a number of
products, including PVC-free toys, mercury-free thermometers,
organically grown cotton T-shirts, and chlorine-free bleached