• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Chemical Roundtable

Air Date: Week of June 19, 1998

Officials from more than 100 nations will gather in Montreal later this month to begin negotiations on phasing out a dozen toxic chemicals. Scientists call these toxins "Persistent Organic Pollutants" because they lodge in the fatty tissues of people and animals, and can cause health problems from reproductive defects to cancer. Here to give us a preview of the talks is Cliff Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Mr. Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Laura Knoy asked them which chemicals are at issue and why there is concern.

Transcript

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Officials from more than 100 nations will gather in Montreal later this month to begin negotiations on phasing out a dozen toxic chemicals. Scientists call these toxins Persistent Organic Pollutants because they lodge in the fatty tissues of people and animals and can cause a host of health problems, from reproductive defects to cancer. Here to give us a preview of the talks is Cliff Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Mr. Pomerance, what type of chemicals are we talking about, and why should we worry about them?

POMERANCE: The most important thing to remember about these Persistent Organic Pollutants, they have 3 important characteristics. They're toxic, they have long lifetimes in the environment, and they can travel great distances.

KNOY: Can you give us some names, some common names that people might have heard of?

POMERANCE: Sure. PCBs, Dioxin, DDT, Myrex, Endrin.

KNOY: Cliff Curtis from the World Wildlife Fund: why do we need an international agreement on Persistent Organic Pollutants? Why not just a national action or regional action?

CURTIS: They have the ability to travel extremely long distances. They're hitchhikers, they tend to evaporate up into the atmosphere and move towards the poles. So you can find substances from the tropics in the tissue of marine mammals in the Arctic, in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. That desperately calls for global action of the type that does not currently exist.

KNOY: Mr. Pomerance, what pollutants do you think are going to be the most controversial, or the most difficult to restrict at the Montreal negotiations?

POMERANCE: Well, we have, first of all, agreed to a list of 12 key pollutants that we have to address in this negotiation. That's because they're identified as the most serious problems. I'll give you an example of a difficult pesticide, which may surprise people, but it's D-D-T. D-D-T is used in some countries as a control for malaria, mosquitos, and I think that some countries will certainly be reluctant to give up its use until they're assured that there are substitutes available. And until they know something about the cost of those substitutes.

KNOY: Is the Administration going to be pushing for the elimination of these 12 key pollutants that you mentioned on the agenda? Or restricting their use?

POMERANCE: Well, I think our goal is elimination, but we have got to address concerns that some countries will have about the rate of elimination of them.

KNOY: Mr. Curtis, what do you think of all this? Is this acceptable? A slow phase-out?

CURTIS: Not surprisingly, we'd like to push it a bit faster. On DDT, my organization, World Wildlife Fund, is going to release on the second day of the meeting, June 30th, a report resolving the DDT dilemma, in which we have concluded based on case studies in 6 regions and developing countries, that you can fairly quickly move down the toxic chemical usage within a few years. Also, in terms of the document that they will negotiate, there's likely to be 2 annexes, one that's restricted use, other is an elimination schedule. So for these 12 prioritized substances, we're going to be urging them to put all of them on that elimination schedule annex, with a road map for getting there. For a number of the pesticides I think there'll be no problem, but for D-D-T we will have to show that the critical route map is there to eliminate them, and the same for getting at dioxins and furans. When you burn PVC's, which is a common plastic that's used, it produces dioxins and furans. And those kinds of PVC's are usually present in municipal waste, in hospital waste, and other types of toxic waste incineration. So one problem that's got to be addressed is ending land-based incineration in order to shut off that valve or emissions of these nasty chemicals.

POMERANCE: The quality of incineration processes can be very different and some of them, you know, over the years various processes have been brought on line that have significantly reduced emissions of these substances. So, to say incineration you can mean various things by it.

KNOY: So, Mr. Pomerance, the Administration, I take it, will not be advocating the complete elimination of the process of incineration.

POMERANCE: I don't think we're going to be addressing taking on the issue of incineration directly. What we're going to talk about is the technology that we have available to reduce emissions to the greatest degree that we can.

KNOY: You've both talked about what you hope will happen at the Montreal talks. Rafe Pomerance and then Cliff Curtis, what do you expect will happen at the talks?

POMERANCE: Montreal is an organizational meeting. Maybe the most interesting thing will be the World Wildlife Fund report on D-D-T. From a perspective of negotiations we have to get this process organized. We have a mandate that has been agreed on by the United Nations Environment Program. We need to set up committees, try to work on a schedule, get some feel for what the opening positions of the different governments are. Montreal is but a first step on the way to an agreement that we hope to reach by the year 2000.

CURTIS: Let me take the long view. At the end of the day, hopefully by no later than the end of 2000, the negotiators will have an agreement for the phase-out and elimination of these 12 substances. What's hard to discern at this point in time is what kind of innovative financing mechanisms and tech transfer provisions will be agreed. That's going to have to be in place in order for this to really be a strong, effective agreement in terms of meeting some pretty expedited schedules for phase-out and elimination of these nasty Persistent Organic Pollutants.

KNOY: Cliff Curtis is director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Rafe Pomerance is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Thanks, both of you, for joining us.

CURTIS: Thank you.

POMERANCE: Thank you.

 

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.