Environmental Chemicals

The universal contamination of the eco-sphere by synthetic chemicals in the past 150 years or so has emerged as one of the greatest threats to the health and survival of all living things on planet earth. This has been officially recognized in recent years – initiated by Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” – and a number of international agreements now attempt to minimize the effects of these chemicals.

Basel Convention: [1989] refers to the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and it’s Disposal

Rotterdam Convention: [Adopted 1998 entered into force 2004] refers to international trade in pesticides and industrial chemicals found to be hazardous to human health or the environment which have been banned or severely restricted. Notification must be given to all Parties under the Prior Informed Consent [PIC] procedure.

Stockholm Convention :– [POPs] – see below. Relates to the banning of Persistent Organic Pollutants

SAICM: – An ongoing UNEP based overarching attempt to manage all chemicals so as to minimize their effects on human health and the environment – see below

REACH : 2007 Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals This EU based scheme is a world leader and represents a new paradigm in terms of overall risk assessment of all 90,000 plus chemicals manufactured or imported into the EU. It is scheduled to be phased in over 11 years and is aimed to provide a high level of protection for human health and the environment. Chemicals manufactured or imported in amounts greater than 10 tonnes must have a ‘Chemicals Safety Report’ provided by the manufacturer or importer [not the governments as in the Conventions above]. The European Chemicals Agency [ECHA] in Finland holds the database and it has had 3 million notifications to date and they estimate that all chemicals in the EU will be REGISTERED by 2018. There were 4402 substances evaluated and authorized as of 26/4/12 but there is a need to harmonize classification and labeling of ‘Chemicals of Concern’, and currently there is a listing of 73 ‘Chemicals of Very High Concern’ [SVHCs] with 13 ‘in consultation’. One difficulty which arises is the question of the combined effect of hundreds of chemicals in our bodies but it has been said by some authorities that this can be estimated mathematically. N.B. Plant Protection Products [PPPs] are exempt under REACH.

SAICM [Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management] was adopted in 2006 under the auspices of the UN/UNEP and it supports the goal of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development [WSSD] “to ensure that by the year 2020 chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize impact on human health and the environment”. The 3rd Session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management [ICCM3] will take place in Nairobi in Sept 2012 and for the first time will review progress in the implementation of the Strategic Approach based on indicators set in ICCM2, and also address emerging policy issues and consider new activities. Currently the International Society of Doctors for the Environment [ISDE], to whom we are affiliated, are involved in attempting to get ICCM3 to consider persistent pharmaceuticals in the environment as an emerging threat, though this is being blocked by certain states at present. [See below for further background information on SAICM]

The Stockholm Convention, signed in 2003 and ratified in May 2004, is the first international treaty aimed at eliminating certain known particularly toxic chemicals ["the Dirty Dozen" or “Poisons without Passports”] from the global environment. The chemicals banned are Persistent Organic Pollutants [POPs] and are mainly organophosphate pesticides [e.g. DDT, dieldrin, toxaphene etc.] as well as PCBs Dioxins and Furans. They can all cause serious health effects in humans and wildlife including cancers, birth defects, immune and reproductive system dysfunction and reduced IQ. See also the paper on corporate involvement in the ongoing contamination. The Stockholm Convention is administered by UNEP and headquartered in Geneva. In 2009 nine new POPS were added to the list and they entered into force in 2010. At the Conference of the Parties [COP5] in May 2011 Africa tried to stop developed countries from exporting toxic flame retardents [Polybrominated diphenylethers – PBDEs] with their waste but with only partial success. They cause CNS damage to infants and toddlers in particular. Endosulfan was also banned at this conference.

It should be noted that DDT, which was banned 30 years ago (except for Indoor Residual Spraying [IRS] in malarious areas) and is a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor [EDC], is still present in 80% of the population in a study done in Spain [Dr Miquel Porta] in 2009 and 100% of those tested had its breakdown product DDE present in their bodies. This indicates the extreme persistence of POPs. The same study showed that 100% of the population had 3 or more POPs present, some had all 19 chemicals that were tested for, and everyone had a HIGH concentration of a few compounds.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals [EDCs]:

These are worth highlighting owing to their effects on humans and wildlife. A wide variety of substances are known or suspected EDCs i.e. they either mimic or block the effects of natural hormones, in particular the sex hormones such as oestrogens or testosterone, but all hormone systems can be affected including the thyroid and insulin [diabetes] and they are suspected to be implicated in the current obesity epidemic [metabolic syndrome]. First highlighted by Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring” published in the USA in 1962 detailing the effects of DDT as an endocrine disruptor causing reproductive effects in wildlife, and generally recognized as the initiator of the environmental movement worldwide. Many POPs are known or suspected EDCs including one of the most ubiquitous – dioxins. Another book “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colburn, Diana Dumanoski & J P Meyers in 1962 is credited with causing the formation in the EU of a Working Party on toxics resulting in a EU Strategy in 1999. A general ban on EDCs is proposed but the Commission have to produce a definition of them by 2013. Currently there is a proposed ban on four phthalates under REACH legislation. Other mechanism being used within the EU to try to limit them are Pesticide Regulations, Biocide Regulations and the Water Framework Directive [WFD].