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POPS & POPS Convention

Author: Dr Kelvin Klemm

( Article Type: Explanation )

POPs stands for Persistent Organic Pollutants, which is a group of chemicals targeted for elimination. These chemicals are all products of the industrial age and were initially used by the first world in industrial processes.

POPs are organic chemicals (this means carbon-based) and there are quite a number of them. The POPs chemicals consist of complex molecules and they generally take a long time to degrade; hence the term 'Persistent'.

In recent years, there has been a move to have the use of 12 particular POPs banned. These 12 POPs are composed of eight pesticides: Aldrin, Endrin, Chlordane, Heptachlor, DDT, Mirex, Dieldrin and Toxaphere; two industrial chemicals: HCBs and PCBs; and two unintended by-product chemical families: Dioxins and Furans.

A POPs Convention was developed by the United Nations to have these 12 POPs banned. A problem, however, is that these chemicals are no longer used by the first world, but some are still used by the developing world. The UN is seeking a world ban. For example, a particular problem case is DDT. Malaria is a disease that has been eliminated from Europe and North America, but it still kills one child every minute in Africa. DDT has been used to control malaria mosquitoes but the POPs Convention seeks to ban it. At the POPs Convention meeting in Johannesburg in December 2000, some relief was allowed in the case of DDT for some countries to use it for malaria control. South Africa has resumed DDT use after malaria figures rose dramatically in recent years.

Wildlife and people are generally exposed to POPs through their food supplies, but workers and residents of communities near POPs sources can also be exposed through inhalation or skin contact. There is still considerable debate as to the health effects of POPs. It is claimed that they are carcinogenic, but this is disputed. It is also claimed that POPs can cause genetic defects. This has led the protagonists of the POPs Convention to argue that prevention is better than cure, so the POPs should be banned.

As a counter argument, developing world countries say that the first world used the chemicals to grow rich and become healthy and now they do not want the developing world to follow in their footsteps.

Another fear voiced about the POPs Convention is that if it is adopted, it will set a precedent and in future it will be easy for the first world just to ban more chemicals that may be beneficial to the developing world.

The POPs convention has resulted in significant confrontation, which seems set to continue for some time in the future.