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, 2009
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Source: Toxics Dispatch, Date: , 2008

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 readers?

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 of POPs?

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 POPs ?

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 POPs?

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.