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Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
August 27, 2003
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is a United Nations Environment Programme Convention, which bans or regulates industrial chemicals and pesticides. The main concern is that POPs tend to bio-accumulate up the food chain, which means they are found in higher doses per pound in salmon, otters, or bears, than they are in simpler animals especially insects. Some of these chemicals can be harmful at high doses, so western countries have enacted precautionary bans on them. Most of these chemicals have not been used in rich countries for years because better, less environmentally harmful alternatives exist. But the blanket banishment of the chemicals in poor countries is ill thought out.
The convention is already killing the poorest Africans by denying them chemicals like DDT. Furthermore, the treaty promotes the Precautionary Principle in international law. Its aim is to eliminate chemicals via a legally binding international agreement, but the entire treaty has very little scientific or moral legitimacy.
Despite these problems, this fall the U.S. Senate will probably ratify the treaty. Although there are claims that POPs cause cancer, harm reproductive potential and disrupt the endocrine system, there is little evidence of such effects. According to Bruce Ames, professor at biochemistry at University of California, Berkeley, naturally occurring chemicals have the same effects on rodents at high doses as the POPs, and there is no evidence that at low doses either are harmful. It makes as much sense to ban coffee, broccoli, orange juice and turnips as it does banning DDT or other POPs, and it’s unlikely any bureaucrat will accept any call to ban coffee.
As Indur Goklany of the U.S. Department of the Interior explains, banning chemicals regardless of the risks they impose does not take into account the risk of not having the technology. People in developing countries need the man-made chemicals and new technologies every day to save their lives. Goklany says that many would welcome the chemicals even if there was evidence that they were very harmful.
It's also worth bearing in mind what my colleague Richard Tren, (Director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria), points out, that during the years that Western countries used the POPs chemicals, they didn't only become richer, they also became healthier. At a time when thousands of new chemicals have entered our environment, life expectancy at birth in rich countries rose from 66.5 in the early 1950s to over 74 in the early 1990s. The increase in life expectancy at birth in the developing regions is even more impressive, at a time when they have been adopting similar technologies. Over the same period in the least developed regions, life expectancy has risen from 35.5 years to just under 50 years.
So is the U.S. Government about to ignore the benefit its own citizens had from these chemicals by ratifying the treaty and condemning the poorest of the poor to be without them? The answer is probably yes. And who can blame the Senators when the American chemical industry is supporting the convention? Since none of the chemicals its members sell is currently listed industry is supporting ratification. But their attitude is hard to understand since chemicals they do sell are most likely to be listed at some stage--that is the lesson of all previous UNEP treaties.
As I mentioned in a previous column on a European directive called REACH (for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), the U.S. may soon adopt legislation much like the European highly precautionary legislation. Not only would this be a mistake, but in this case the U.S. industry seems, sensibly, to want to oppose it. But why does it not see that the EU Chemicals Directive is no worse than the POPs Convention? Both are predicated on over precaution, neither is scientifically based, and both will harm their industry and consumers in the short, medium and long term. The only explanation is that while REACH is foreign, it targets their modern chemicals, whereas although POPs is global (and hence affects them directly), it doesn't cover the stuff they make, yet. This is short-sightedness of the highest order.
There is one other explanation of their support for POPs. Businesses in the developing world face increased production costs and oppose the treaty whereas industry in the developed North stands to gain (a small amount) in producing the alternative chemicals and by enjoying a competitive advantage by already complying with the legislation. But the amount of money Dow Chemical or Du Pont make from selling chemicals to Africa is pitifully small, whereas the harm to Africans from not being able to use DDT (the most important POP), is measured in thousands of lives.
Green campaigners also like to claim victories as these conventions are ratified, and can raise even more funds as a result. And they will use these funds to push European-style chemicals legislation in America. Governments, and particularly their bureaucrats, will have increased budgets and power from the POPs treaty. And they will employ all sorts of consultants who will then become further supports of the treaty and the domestic legislation it brings.
As governments struggle to implement the convention, the UNEP Chemicals Divisions is already calling for consultants to apply for positions to assist countries with their implementation plans.
But implementation will not make people wealthy, it will just cause death in poor countries, and that is why the U.S. Senate must not ratify this Convention. In recent weeks President Bush has wanted to show his green credentials (especially in appointing a new EPA Administrator). It is time for his Republican allies in the Senate to stop the rot and stand on scientific principle.