Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith is the Co-chair of International POPs Elimination Network(IPEN). She has been working against POPs for decades. In this interview with Bindu Milton she shares her views on POPs
(This interview is reprinted from Toxics Dispath issue number 34,published in October 2008)
1. Could you briefly explain the mission of IPEN to our
The 600 public interest non-governmental organisations that
make up International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) are committed to working
towards and achieving a toxic free future. We aim to ensure all chemicals are produced and used in ways that
eliminate significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. We
envisage a time where persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and chemicals of
equivalent concern no longer pollute our local and global environments, no longer
contaminate our communities, our food, our bodies, and most importantly, the
bodies of our children and future generations.
2. Could you
tell us what made you to start your campaign against POPs?
While IPEN was formed by NGOs in 1998, campaigning on POPs
started much earlier. In Australia we
started to work on POPs in the early 1980s. Many of us became aware of devastating effects that pesticides like DDT,
dieldrin and heptachlor were having on wildlife, the environment and people’s
health. By the late 1980s, we had
uncovered many hundreds of DDT contaminated sites associated with agriculture. Test had shown high POPs
contamination in the breast milk of women living in the region. Wildlife living
in the area as well the cetaceans along the neighbouring coastline all carried
horrendous levels of POPs in their bodies. Throughout the 1990s we worked with
the government and industry to ban the POPs pesticides from the Australian
environment, as well as rid ourselves
of the industrial PCB..
3. POP is an
emerging issue and the common public is not that aware about it. Could you
explain it? What is its impact on environment and human being?
It is often hard to explain to the general public the full
ramifications of our use of POPs in agriculture and in industry. As the impacts
of POPs are not always immediate and their contamination invisible, people find
it difficult to understand the full effects.
I like to explain the impacts of POPs using the term
‘poisons without passports’. That is POPs secretly enter uninvited into our
homes, our environments and our bodies. They are then passed silently from
mother to baby in utero and via breastmilk. Yet, POPs can have terrible
reproductive effects and also disrupt the hormones that are essential to healthy
development. They can affect a child’s development many years after exposure or
give a worker cancer long after his job is finished. Exposure to POPs can
damage the organs of humans and wildlife, particularly the liver and kidneys
and are linked with many different cancers. Recently they have also been
identified as a cause in obesity and diabetes.
4. What are the characteristics
The original 12 POPs and the new
ones currently being assessed, all have
the same POPs characteristics. They are Persistency, in that they do not break
down easily and can last many years in the soil and sediment; Transboundary
movement, in that they respect no national borders and travel the world freely
on air and water currents ending up many thousands of miles from where they
were used or released; Bioaccumulation, resulting in all living organisms being
contaminated with POPs chemicals. POPs are ingested by fish and other species,
and then travel up the food chain, accumulating in the fatty tissue of animals,
including people. In humans, POPs are now found in blood, fat, breast milk,
umbilical cord blood, placenta and baby meconium. Toxicity; all POPs damage
human health, vulnerable wildlife and the wider environment.
5. Which are the most toxic
All POPs are toxic and causing a
range of diseases and adverse effects. However, the POPs byproducts dioxins,
furans and PCBs are often described as of the most toxic of all manmade
chemicals. They last for many decades and affect generations to come. Children
exposed in the womb and through breast milk may demonstrate adverse development
for many years. Most worryingly, we
know so little about the toxic interactions of POPs in our bodies, yet we are
all exposed to a wide mixture of POPs chemicals.
6. Could you briefly state about Stockholm
Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001)
The Stockholm Convention was established by the
countries of the world in order to protect human health and the environment
from POPs. The Convention text lists the action a country must take to
eliminate the production, use, trade and emissions of POPs while preventing the
introduction of new chemicals with POP-like characteristics and ensuring the
environmentally sound destruction of POPs waste stockpiles.
The Convention originally covered 12 POPs including
the organochlorine pesticides; DDT, endrin, dieldrin, aldrin, chlordane,
toxaphene, heptachlor, mirex, hexachlorobenzene; and the industrial chemicals
and by-products; PCBs, dioxins and furans. These were chosen because of their
common hazardous characteristics of toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation,
and because they are capable of travelling vast distances via water and air.
This meant no country could deal with their impacts on their own. POPs required
a global commitment and effective
international action. Since 2001, countries have nominated a further 13 POPs
chemicals for inclusion in the Convention.
7. Which part of world is
facing the maximum threat from POPs?
While all regions of the world are threatened by POPs, the most
vulnerable are the cold remote areas of the Arctic regions. This is due to the
‘grasshopper affect’. POPs evaporate
out of the soil in warmer countries where they are still used, and travel in
the atmosphere toward cooler areas, condensing out again when the temperature
drops. The process, repeated in "hops," can carry them thousands of
kilometres in a matter of days.
Countries like Canada and Russia
are at the receiving end of this process. The Inuit people who have never used
many of the POPs chemicals are now some of the most highly contaminated humans
in the world. Also the remote southern state of Tasmania in Australia, once
thought to be pristine, is showing evidence of these unwanted POPs travelers.
8. How we can save the environment and human being from
NGOs across the globe need to work to ensure their national
governments implement their obligations under the Stockholm Convention. They
can also help governments and industry with information on alternative
chemicals and processes to speed up the elimination of POPs chemicals. NGOs can
help spread the word to the general public, to farmers and the media about the
dangers of POPs and provide information on how to avoid them.
Countries also need to be encouraged to nominate even more
chemicals with POPs characteristics for assessment under the Stockholm
Convention. Through this process we can achieve effective international bans
across the globe and help protect humans, the environment and future
generations from the dangers of POPs.