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News from Stockholm Convention COP-4, Geneva, May 4-8, 2009

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The POPs Treaty

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, better known as the POPs treaty, is a legally binding international agreement to protect human health and the environment from some of the most dangerous chemicals on earth. POPs are defined by their persistence in the environment, their bioaccumulation in nature and in people, and the harm they pose often far from the source. Countries that ratify the treaty are known as Parties commit to abide by its provisions. The POPs treaty calls on Parties to take action to eliminate the production of POPs, minimize unintentional sources, and clean-up and safely manage remaining stockpiles and wastes.

The Stockholm POPs treaty names twelve POPs chemicals (the "Dirty Dozen"), which are listed under three Annexes. The nine POPs listed on Annex A are destined for elimination with specific, time-limited exemptions. This includes the agricultural chemicals aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene, as well as the industrial chemicals hexachlorobenzene (HCB), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In contrast, POPs listed on Annex B are subject to restrictions on production and use, but eligible for specific exemptions for acceptable purposes. Annex B contains just one substance, the pesticide DDT. Annex C contains POPs that are unintentionally produced, for example as industrial byproducts and combustion processes. Four of the Dirty Dozen POPs are listed under Annex C: polychlorinated dioxins, polychlorinated furans, PCBs, and HCB.

A crucial feature of the POPs treaty is the process for adding other POPs substances. The treaty establishes a rigorous scientific review process for chemicals proposed for addition. The Persistent Organic Pollutant Review Committee (POPRC), an international group of experts chosen by countries that have ratified the treaty, evaluates proposals and makes recommendations on whether and how to add a chemical to the Stockholm Convention.

After a chemical is nominated for consideration, the POPRC first determines whether the substance meets the POP criteria for persistence, bioaccumulation, long-range environmental transport, and adverse impacts. If a substance fulfills these requirements, the POPRC develops a risk profile for chemical under consideration. If the POPRC concludes that global action is warranted, it develops a risk management evaluation proposing control measures. The POPRC can recommend that the Conference of the Parties (COP) lists the substance in one or more Annexes of the Stockholm POPs treaty.

If the POPRC recommends a candidate POP, the COP can decide to list the substance and specify control measures. The majority of countries are expected to bring new POPs under control as they are listed under the Stockholm Convention. However countries have the option, at the time they becomes a Party, to elect an “opt-in” approach to future POPs listings. The United States has indicated that it would reserve the right to opt-in on future amendments, including new POPs.

The Stockholm Convention includes several other important features. It establishes a Secretariat responsible for organizing meetings of the COP and other subsidiary bodies, facilitating assistance to the Parties, coordinating with other relevant international bodies, and preparing periodic reports. The treaty calls for the development of national implementation plans, technical assistance, new financial resources to enable developing country parties to effectively implement the treaty, and compliance mechanisms.

The POPs treaty was completed and opened for signature in May 2001 and entered into force on May 17, 2004 following ratification by the 50th nation. As of May 4, 2009, 162 countries and the European Union had ratified or acceded to the Stockholm Convention on POPs.