Phasing out harmful chemicals: the Stockholm Convention

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  • 2011•10•31     Tokyo

    On Tuesday 25 October, the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) hosted an international symposium on the “Past ten years of the Stockholm Convention on POPs,” at UNU Headquarters in Tokyo, to reflect on international progress in combating persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The symposium reviewed ways to strengthen research and technological capacity around the world and improve the implementation of this important multilateral environmental agreement.

    Speaking at the symposium, Kei Ohno, representative of the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention, asked participants to consider the extent to which harmful chemicals and POPs have become part of their lives and societies: “What about your mobile phone? The clothes you are wearing? This carpet, or the car you may have driven here this morning? Do they contain POPs? Can you be sure?” she asked.

    Over the past fifty years, people around the globe have been exposed to unprecedented levels of chemical substances. This “chemical revolution” has, in many cases, contributed to improving human well-being. (For example, chemicals have raised farming yields by killing crop pests.) However, numerous chemicals can travel thousands of kilometres from where they were originally used, cause toxic reactions, persist in the environment for years, and accumulate in the body′s fatty tissues. One class of these chemicals, POPs, has raised particular concern as they can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, and greater susceptibility to disease.

    In response to these concerns, in 2001 the international community adopted the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which entered into force in 2004. This convention, to which 171 countries are now party, requires parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release into the environment of over twenty POPs.

    During the symposium, Ohno took stock of the progress made under the convention to date, in working towards “the common goal of protecting both human health and the environment”. In addition to increasing the number of Parties to the Convention and the number of listed POPs (from an initial 12 to 21), significant achievements have also been made in national implementation, reducing and eliminating the release of POPs (both intentionally and unintentionally), managing POP stockpiles, providing technical assistance, establishing synergies with other environmental conventions and raising public awareness.

    Nevertheless, new and complex challenges are continually emerging. For example, “currently, potential POPs in e-waste in both developing and developed countries are becoming a chemical management challenge”, Ohno explained.

    Similarly, whilst gains have been made in providing technical assistance to developing countries and countries in economic transition (such as through the establishment of fifteen regional centres for technology transfer and capacity building), further support is needed to help parties implement the convention.

    “We are still receiving many request for technical assistance to support national implementation and to achieve the target (set out in the convention) of phasing out the use of polychlorinate biphenyls (PCBs) by 2025”, Ohno said.

    UNU–Shimadzu partnership monitors pollution in Asia

    The international symposium also celebrated the 15th anniversary of cooperation between UNU and the Shimadzu Corporation, who have partnered with national institutions across Asia to monitor and manage POPs. This ongoing capacity building initiative provides developing Asian countries with the scientific knowledge and technology needed to monitor pollutants in the environment and to better implement the Stockholm Convention and other environmental conventions.

    Over the past 15 years, the UNU-ISP project on Environmental Monitoring and Governance in the Asian Coastal Hydrosphere has helped partner countries to enhance their overall capacity in POPs research. Annual international symposiums have disseminated the latest international POPs-related developments and the project has built an extensive network connecting academia, the private sector and government.

    For more information, see the symposium page on the UNU-ISP website.