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UN treaty to cut most toxic pollutants imminent

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7271.1245/b (Published 18 November 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1245
  1. Judy Jones
  1. London

    A global treaty to protect human health from the most toxic persistent organic pollutants is to be negotiated by more than 120 countries in Johannesburg next month. The United Nations Environment Programme is seeking agreement for the treaty to reduce or eliminate the 12 persistent organic pollutants that the programme regards as the most threatening to future generations.

    These pollutants (pesticides, industrial chemicals, and byproducts of industrial processes) are toxic and accumulate in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated with time higher up the food chain. In the Arctic the indigenous diet of the Inuit people relies on such fatty foods as whale and seal, which are high in pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Inuit mothers typically have high levels of PCBs in their breast milk—up to five times the levels in mothers in industrialised countries.

    “Toxic and very long lasting, persistent organic pollutants endanger the wellbeing of our planet and of all living beings,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme. “The global treaty approaching completion in December is the necessary global defence against these poisons.”

    Of the tens of thousands of stocks of obsolete pesticides found throughout the developing world, about 30% are persistent organic pollutants, the programme says. An estimated 1.5 million tons of PCBs have been produced commercially for use in electrical equipment or as coolants in transformers. Although no longer in production, hundreds of thousands of tons are still in use or awaiting disposal.

    The compounds listed for urgent action to reduce or eliminate supplies are the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, dicophane (DDT), dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene; the industrial chemicals PCBs and hexachlorobenzene; and the unwanted byproducts of combustion and industrial processes dioxins and furans. The UN programme hopes the treaty will be ready for signing in Stockholm in May 2001.

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