What do Geneva, Alaska and a small town in Ohio have in common? These three cities are united by my work on toxic chemicals in the international review process to determine their health hazards.
Let’s be honest, they’re not exactly household words that roll off the tongue - chlorinated naphthalenes, hexabromocyclododecane, hexachlorobutadiene, pentachlorophenol, short-chained chlorinated paraffins…. However, they were among the chemicals under consideration at an important international conference on pollutants just a few weeks ago.
Key decisions were made that have important implications for global environmental health—the health of all of us and particularly the health of people living in the Arctic.
How it works
I am part of a small group of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), collaborating organizations of the International POPs Elimination Network (www.ipen.org), who participate in these weeklong meetings each year. We participate in plenary and work group sessions throughout the day and evening, offering scientific evidence to advance consideration of the chemicals. We also provide the perspective of civil society to ensure the application of the precautionary principle and the scientific integrity of the work of the Committee. We are up against a large contingent of representatives of international chemical corporations, including the major manufacturers of pesticides and other industrial chemicals.
What is the Stockholm Convention?
The Stockholm Convention is a living treaty that includes provisions to add new chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment (by meeting scientific criteria for persistence, long-range transport, adverse effects, and bioaccumulation.) The POPs Review Committee makes determinations about whether chemicals meet these criteria. I came prepared for this meeting with over 50 scientific papers, focusing on the chemicals that I was the designated “lead” for within our IPEN team—and I worked to advance these toxic chemicals through the process:
- Pentachlorophenol, is a widely used wood preservative and historically as an agricultural pesticide. Due to its widespread use and disposal, PCP is now detected in air, water, and soil throughout the world, as well as in the blood, urine, seminal fluid, and breast milk of people.
- Hexachlorobutadiene is mainly a by-product produced in the manufacturing of certain chlorinated solvents such as perchloroethylene, an industrial solvent used for dry cleaning.
- Short-chained chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) are industrial chemicals used in metalworking, paints, adhesives and sealants, plastics and rubber, flame retardants and in fracking fluids. Exposure to SCCPS has been linked with cancer. These chemicals are found in Arctic marine mammals such as beluga whale, seals, and walrus. SCCPs have also been found in the breast milk of Arctic Indigenous women.
Why this work is personal
I have a personal interest in these chemicals because I grew up in the small town in Dover, Ohio that bears the dubious distinction of having the largest manufacturer of SCCPs in the United States, Dover Chemical—now among the most severely contaminated sites in the country.
My brother Jerry died at a young age of cancer and there seems to be a cluster of cancers and illnesses in our neighborhood—so it is personal to my family and to me. In February of this year, Dover Chemical was charged $1.4 million in an enforcement action by the EPA and Department of Justice for violations of the Toxics Substances Control Act.
And now, I find myself in this international scientific meeting and deeply concerned as well about the fact that these same chemicals contaminate a place and people that I also care about in the Arctic.
In prior meetings, the Committee had already determined that SCCPs met the required scientific criteria and yet, they decided at this meeting to take no action on this substance. This is after delaying action for the past 6 years. For me, this was the most disappointing decision of the Committee meeting. As my colleague Mariann Lloyd-Smith of IPEN said: “This raises concerns about scientific integrity and whether commercial considerations area higher priority than the Stockholm Convention’s goal of protecting human health and the environment.”
We are not giving up!
After this meeting, we will continue our work to ensure the global elimination of SCCPs. In the meantime, we celebrate the significant progress on the other nominated chemicals. The scientific committee recommended global phase-out of the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), now used extensively in polystyrene insulation. They also advanced pentachlorophenol, hexachlorobutadiene, and chlorinated napthalenes to the next stage of review, recognizing that these chemicals warrant global action because of their significant threats to health and the environment.
To follow Pam on Twitter: @ak_action
I find your article inspiring as well as intriguing and am amazed at the work that is being done to rid the environment of such persistent organic pollutants. I was looking for possible summer internships and stumbled upon this article. While reading I realized this was the type of work I have been looking for. If there is any information about summer internships or just other related articles please let me know. Thank you and it was a pleasurable reading.Posted by: Mariela Vazquez | Mar 1, 2013 2:17:34 PM