The POPs treaty

A dozen notoriously toxic chemicals have been outlawed, or restricted around the world under a landmark United Nations treaty signed in Stockholm in May. It is a rare piece of good news for the global environment. The accord will ban, phase out or severely cut back a range of industrial chemicals and pesticides that linger in soil and water for decades. These pollutants pass up the food chain and accumulate in the body's fatty tissues. They are a suspected source of allergies, birth defects, cancer and damage to the immune system and reproductive organs.

The treaty which is known as the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants ( pops) was finalised in Johannesburg in December 2000 after a marathon lasting two and half years. A total of 91 countries and the European Commission have already signed the convention, a process that was attended by over 300 ngos. India is still to sign the treaty.

It is today a well-known fact that every person in the world carries traces of pops in his or her body. The treaty represents the first step taken on an international basis to combat the menace of pops. This will be done by setting up control mechanisms to cover the production, import, export and disposal and use of pops and make money available to the developing countries to phase out these chemicals. The road has been opened to add more chemicals to the list for a final phase out and a review committee will be set up to consider additional chemicals to be brought under the purview of the convention.

The case for using the precautionary principle to protect human health has therefore received a boost. The principle is the guiding factor behind the convention that makes it possible to take action against dangerous chemicals as long as there is scientific evidence that they pose a risk to human health and the environment even without complete certainty. Unfortunately an exemption has been granted to ddt . It is claimed that ddt is needed by developing countries to combat malaria. These countries will be allowed to use ddt till they find cheaper alternatives. It is however unfortunate that very few are interested in providing safer alternatives like a vaccine for malaria or promoting bioenvironmental control of the disease.

India has already banned the use of nine out of 12 pops. The three remaining are polychlorinated biphenyls ( pcbs), ddt and dioxins and furans. While ddt has been banned for agriculture, controls are so lax that invariably it finds its way into agricultural use. It is time that ddt was also brought under the purview of the convention and a serious effort made to replace it.