U.N. chemical blacklist may be too short

A “dirty dozen” of industrial chemicals blamed for causing deaths and birth defects will be outlawed beginning Monday by a U.N. pact, but many experts want other chemicals added to the blacklist.

Inuit hunters in Canada, among those most exposed because many toxins are swept to the Arctic by ocean and air currents, plan to celebrate the ban with a feast of whale, seal stew, fish and caribou in Iqaluit, Baffin Island.

The 2001 Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) takes effect on May 17 after ratification by 50 states, ending the use of a range of pesticides, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

“The convention will save lives and protect the natural environment…by banning the production and use of some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind,” said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).

Even, so it will takes years for POPs, used in everyday items like plastics or paints as well as pesticides, to break down. And everyone on the planet has traces of POPs in their bodies, the UNEP says.

Many experts say the “dirty dozen” list is too short.

“Some of the old classical pesticides are in decline in some areas,” said Lars-Otto Reiersen, head of the Aortic Monitoring and Assessment Program. “What alarms us most is that levels of new products like brominated flame retardants are increasing.”

Flame retardants are used for example in sofas, clothing or television sets. Some are restricting their use because of worries about their environmental impact.

“Brominated flame retardants are a possibility (for addition to the list) as are many other chemicals,” Jim Willis, head of UNEP’s chemicals division, told Reuters. Canadian environmentalists also want the pesticide lindane outlawed.


POPs can cause cancer and damage the nervous, reproductive and immune systems of people and animals, the UNEP notes.

High levels of POPS have been found in Inuit breast milk and POPs have even been blamed for deforming the sexual organs of female polar bears.

“We are being poisoned from afar,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference that represents 155,000 Inuit, said last week.

POPs, such as the pesticides DDT, aldrin or dieldrin, have been long banned in many nations. Even so, anyone scraping off old paint from a window frame, for instance, may release PCBs.

POPs build up in fatty tissues, the world’s whale population is probably swimming around with tens of tons of POPs lodged in blubber. The Inuit hope the ban will make traditional fatty foods, like seal or fish, less risky.

The Stockholm convention will unlock spending of about $500 million, partly to help destroy stockpiles and seek alternatives to POPs. About 25 nations, including South Africa and Ethiopia, will be allowed to keep using DDT to spray malarial mosquitoes.

The WWF environmental group expressed worries that global warming could exacerbate the POPs problem; higher temperatures might wash out chemicals that have been locked in glaciers, or flooding might release buried POPs.

European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, a Swede, said she was screened last year for 77 toxins including POPs. “I had 28 in my body, including PCB and DDT,” she said. “I was told that my result was below the average of the group tested.”

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD