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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Persistant Organic Pollutants

Air Date: Week of

Janet Raloff, Senior Editor of Science News, talks with host Steve Curwood about the historic new treaty that will eliminate some of the world’s most harmful synthetic chemicals.


CURWOOD: Not every pollutant stays put where it's emitted or created. Some travel around the world in the air and water and then accumulate up the food chain. They're called POPs, persistent organic pollutants. And now, the worst twelve of these chemicals are being phased out of use worldwide. The list in the draft treaty recently agreed upon by 122 countries in Johannesburg, South Africa, include such toxins as DDT, dioxins, PCBs, and aldrin. Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News, joins us now to talk about the details of the agreement. Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Janet, before we talk about the details, tell me, generally, what kind of precedents are being set here?

RALOFF: Well, up until now there's never been a global approach to trying to wipe out the most dangerous compounds affecting the environment. So that if we say, you know, that these things are dangerous, we knock them out of the United States, it's not sufficient if they're still using them in China or Africa or someplace else. Here it's going to be everybody moving toward the same goal. And that's the only way you can sort of prevent these things from moving around the world. So, this is new and it's making people ask: what chemicals can you really live without, especially among the nasty ones? And if you're going to have to do that, what does it take to find suitable alternatives? And who's going to pay for them? And all of those kinds of things are addressed in this, and it tries to make it equitable so that everyone can do it, not just the wealthy nations.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that a lot of the tension around this agreement was exactly the question of who's going to pay for this, particularly the poor countries. The alternatives to some of these chemicals are much more expensive. How do they work that out?

RALOFF: Well, the poorer countries can't afford it. And it's in our vested interest to see that they do make the transition. So industrial nations have decided they will put together a huge fund to try and help these other countries make the transition, and the money will be dispersed through the United Nations Environment Program.

CURWOOD: I was fascinated to hear that the precautionary principle is a part of this. Can you explain that for us, and how it worked out in these negotiations? I would imagine this is something that the chemical companies in particular would be uncomfortable with.

RALOFF: Basically, this is a concept that helps you deal with uncertainties. If you don't know how dangerous something is, but the risk of you being wrong about how dangerous it is could be grave, then maybe you should take action. And that's what happened here. They decided that they didn't want to have the language such that you had to wait and count bodies before you could move on a toxic chemical. The European Union had been going into the negotiations suggesting that science could be a part of your evaluation of how toxic something was, but maybe you could move on a chemical despite the science. The United States had been saying no, science should be a real pivotal issue if it's there to support the toxicity. And in fact, the chemical industry was very happy with the final results, which say that basically, sort of, takes the U.S. position that science will not be disregarded in the evaluations of the toxicity.

CURWOOD: Now, DDT has also figured large in these discussions. Nobody much likes DDT. It persists and it travels the globe. But people say that it is very useful in killing mosquitos in countries where malaria is rampant, and these tend to be poor countries that can't afford alternatives. How was this worked out?

RALOFF: Well, it doesn't work in every country with malaria, but it does help about 24 countries right now. And they would get an exemption indefinitely into the future to continue using small amounts of DDT, but just for this purpose. Moreover, they're going to have the United Nations looking over their shoulder as they do that. They've got to explain how much they're using, how they're using it to minimize how much gets into the atmosphere. And the efforts are making to still try and move toward alternatives.

CURWOOD: How likely is it that this is all going to go into effect, become international law?

RALOFF: The final document will be open for signing next May in Stockholm, and they expect probably 100 countries will sign it fairly soon. Then the harder task of ratifying it will take a little longer, but the expectation is that 50 countries will, in fact, ratify it, which is all it takes to make it binding, international law, some time within three to four years.

CURWOOD: And the U.S.?

RALOFF: The U.S. is likely going to sign the document. Whether the Senate ratifies it -- gee, I can't look into the heads of our Senate. But because the administration is likely to be behind it, we'll probably live by the letter of the law, whether or not we've actually signed onto it.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is Senior Editor of Science News. Janet, thanks for taking this time with us today.

RALOFF: Thank you, Steve.



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