Counterpunch  [Printer-friendly version]
September 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Despite U.S. reluctance, the international
community is moving toward precautionary approaches that will provide
real protection for both human health and the environment.]

By Kristin S. Schafer

Back in 2001, two global toxics treaties offered a rare opportunity
for U.S. leadership in the international environmental policy arena.
Today not only is the opportunity for leadership lost, but the United
States seems bent on undermining the effectiveness of these important
treaties while the rest of the world moves ahead on implementation.

The issues at hand are global elimination of persistent chemicals and
control of trade in toxics, and the two international treaties that
address these challenges are the Stockholm Convention on Persistent
Organic Pollutants [the "POPs Treaty"] and the Rotterdam Convention on
the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals
and Pesticides in International Trade . As of August 2006, at least
127 countries had ratified the Stockholm Convention, and 110 had
confirmed the Rotterdam Convention. Both conventions have been in
force for more than two years, but the United States has yet to
approve either.

The chemicals addressed under the Stockholm Convention are persistent
organic pollutants (POPs). These toxic substances are transported
across the globe, persist in the environment, accumulate in the body
fat of humans and animals, and concentrate up the food chain. Even at
very low levels of exposure, POPs can cause reproductive and
developmental disorders, damage to the immune and nervous systems, and
a range of cancers. Exposure during key phases of fetal development
can be particularly damaging, and infants around the world are born
with an array of POPs already in their blood. POPs are found in the
current U.S. food supply, even though many of the chemicals in
question have been banned in the United States for decades.

The global nature of these pollutants led the United Nations
Environment Program (UNEP) to sponsor extensive negotiations that
culminated in the signing of the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2001.
The treaty entered into force in May 2004 after ratification by 50
countries. The POPs treaty identifies an initial list of twelve
pollutants slated for elimination. Nine of these-aldrin, endrin,
dieldrin, chlordane, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT),
heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, and toxaphene-are pesticides
that have been targeted for elimination by non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) around the world since the early 1980s. The other
chemicals on the convention's initial list are polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and furans. Although it banned PCBs and
POPs many years ago, the United States continues to produce dioxins
and furans as byproducts of chlorine-based industries and waste

The Stockholm Convention establishes various timetables for the
elimination of the listed POP chemicals. Provisions specific to the
ever-controversial DDT call for its ultimate elimination but allow
interim use of the pesticide for malaria vector control, if use is
accompanied by aggressive efforts to develop and implement safe and
effective alternatives. DDT is currently used to control malaria in
about two dozen countries, mostly in Africa.

Importantly, the Stockholm treaty also includes a process for
identifying and reviewing additional POPs. Five nominated chemicals,
including the pesticide lindane and the flame retardant
pentabromodiphenyl ether (PBDE), have already passed the first stage
of the rigorous, scientific review process on their way to being
banned. Another five chemicals are under consideration.

The Rotterdam Convention, which also came into force in 2004, is a
complementary treaty providing important controls on international
trade of highly toxic chemicals. It requires that any country
importing pesticides and certain other hazardous chemicals must be
informed of bans or severe restrictions on those substances in other
countries. This gives a receiving country the option of refusing
shipments of chemicals listed under the treaty on the grounds that
they may be harmful to the environment or to the health of its

According to the most recent analysis of U.S. customs records
conducted by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education,
more than 1.7 billion pounds of pesticides were exported from U.S.
ports between 2001 and 2003. Nearly 28 million pounds of this total
were pesticides that have been banned in the United States. Developing
countries often lack the capacity to adequately evaluate and regulate
highly toxic chemicals imported from their Northern neighbors. The
Rotterdam Prior Informed Consent treaty (PIC) is the international
community's response to this inequity. Although the convention could
be strengthened-some analysts believe that the current rules for
adding chemicals to the "PIC list" are designed to limit the number of
new substances that can be added-it represents an important tool to
help the international community monitor and control the world's
massive trade in dangerous substances.

* * *

Just prior to Earth Day 2001, President Bush announced that he
intended to sign the Stockholm POPs treaty and move quickly toward
ratification. He pointed out the bipartisan nature of the commitment,
promising to conclude a process overseen by his Democratic
predecessor. Many U.S. NGOs welcomed the Bush administration's
commitment to the treaty, and they hoped that the State Department and
Senate would follow through with ratification of the Stockholm
Convention and its companion, the Rotterdam Convention, before the end
of 2001.

More than five years later, U.S. ratification is still elusive. Before
the Senate can provide the necessary advice and consent, Congress must
make modest amendments to fix loopholes in two key federal statutes. A
controversial version of the required implementing legislation
currently being considered by the House (the Gillmor POPs bill) would
virtually ensure that the United States never regulates any POPs added
to the Stockholm Convention. It also threatens states' rights to
protect their citizens from POPs by preempting stricter state rules.
This bill has drawn fire from the United Steelworkers, American Nurses
Association, attorneys general in eleven states, and dozens of
environmental health advocacy groups. The House is likely to consider
the proposed legislation, which modifies the Toxic Substances Control
Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, in
early September.

The United States has a history of slow ratification of international
agreements, many of which have been known to languish for years in the
Senate, the State Department, or somewhere in the policy netherworld.
In the case of the Stockholm Convention, the delay is inexcusable. The
treaty has widespread support from the NGO community, the chemical
industry, and governments around the world, and it regulates a set of
chemicals that have been known for decades to be extremely dangerous.

The primary barrier to ratification has been a reluctance to establish
a reasonable domestic system for taking action when new chemicals are
added under the treaty. The treaty is designed so that every
participating country can opt in or opt out of taking action on newly
added chemicals. Once the United States has decided to opt in, a
domestic process must be in place to meet the treaty commitments. The
current version of legislation delinks the Environmental Protection
Agency's (EPA) decision-making from the international scientific
process, even after the United States has decided to opt in for action
on a new chemical. This is a serious barrier to streamlined action and
a clear violation of the spirit of the convention.

Some of the chemicals likely to be considered for addition, such as
the pesticide endosulfan, are still in widespread use in both
industrialized and developing nations, despite clear evidence of
toxicity, persistence in the environment, and bioaccumulation.
Elimination of these additional chemicals is certain to be more
controversial in the United States than agreement on the initial
pesticides targeted under the treaty, which have already been banned
domestically for decades. In a White House Rose Garden statement
announcing his intent to sign and ratify the POPs treaty, President
Bush noted that POP chemicals "respect no boundaries and can harm
Americans even when released abroad." This statement, while true, does
not reflect the other side of the equation-that continued use and
release in the United States of persistent chemicals not included on
UNEP's initial list under the convention can and do harm citizens in
other countries around the world.

The science-based process of adding new chemicals under the Stockholm
Convention should be governed by precaution, a concept that appears in
several places in the treaty's text and is strongly supported by
health and environmental advocates worldwide. The precautionary
principle recognizes that when there is evidence that a chemical
threatens "serious or irreversible damage," action should be taken
even in the absence of full scientific certainty. This principle
recognizes the tremendous complexity of scientific research on the
environmental and health impacts of synthetic chemicals, and it
directs the international community to take protective action based on
available knowledge to avoid irreparable harm.

Most European countries are well ahead of the United States in
embracing the precautionary principle in both domestic and
international policies. In negotiating the Stockholm Convention, the
United States strenuously opposed precautionary language, while Europe
strongly promoted it. This proved, along with the topic of financing,
to be one of the most contentious issues in the final hours of treaty

During negotiation of the Rotterdam Convention, the United States
clearly recognized the potential impact of the more precautionary and
protective policies in Europe. Under the voluntary PIC procedure, a
pesticide qualified for the PIC list if it had been banned or severely
restricted in any single country. The alternative proposal, supported
by the United States and eventually incorporated into the final
Rotterdam Convention, stipulates that a pesticide must be banned in at
least two countries belonging to two separate global regions to
trigger the PIC procedure. The boundaries used for the treaty include
the United States and Canada as one region and the 43 countries of
Europe as another. The U.S. position on this issue stemmed from
concerns that bans in Europe, based on more precautionary policies,
would lead to a larger "PIC list," potentially undermining markets for
U.S. pesticide manufacturers.

Yet despite U.S. reluctance, the international community is moving
toward precautionary approaches that will provide real protection for
both human health and the environment. The Rotterdam Convention is
itself an example of a fundamentally precautionary instrument that
allows governments to choose to avoid harm by not allowing imports of
chemicals that have been deemed too dangerous in other countries.

* * *

Congress must pass implementing legislation for the two conventions
that ensures appropriate transparency and public notification,
protects states' rights, effectively meets treaty obligations, and, in
the case of the Stockholm Convention, allows a streamlined process for
adding new chemicals based on decisions taken by the countries that
have ratified the convention-the Conference of Parties. Under the
convention, an international Scientific Review Committee has been
established to recommend bans on additional chemicals. The Conference
of Parties will consider these recommendations and come to agreement
on any list expansion. To fulfill its treaty obligations, the United
States must have a domestic program in place to rapidly implement
decisions made under the treaty.

Draft legislation meeting these criteria exists in the House (the
Solis POPs bill), but it was voted down along party lines in committee
in July 2006. Congress must roundly reject the controversial Gillmor
bill moving forward that does not meet these criteria. Although
environmental health groups around the United States are eager to see
the conventions ratified, they would rather wait for proper
implementing legislation than accept ratification that undermines the
POPs treaty and weakens U.S. participation in its implementation.

Because the United States has not yet ratified the conventions, it is
participating in official meetings as an observer. Yet this does not
mean the United States cannot take steps to demonstrate a commitment
to treaty implementation and advance toward meeting treaty objectives.
The United States should immediately initiate the development of a
national implementation plan, including a focus on the byproduct POPs
(dioxins and furans) and an evaluation of persistent chemicals not yet
listed under the Stockholm Convention.

In developing a national plan, federal officials should examine
progressive policies at the state level. Several states such as Maine,
Washington, and California are addressing the ongoing use of
persistent pollutants. For example, a February 2006 executive order by
the governor of Maine established a task force to identify and promote
safer alternatives to persistent bioaccumulative toxins, neurotoxins,
and other chemicals discovered through biological monitoring. The
state of Washington is implementing a plan under its Department of
Ecology to phase out releases of persistent pollutants like mercury
and dioxins. And in 2002, California phased out the pharmaceutical
uses of lindane, a persistent pesticide finally banned from
agricultural applications by the EPA in 2006 after a 29-year review
process. Lindane has already been outlawed in at least 52 countries
and was nominated in 2005 for inclusion under the Stockholm
Convention. Progress currently underway through state-level
initiatives like these can help the United States move toward national
evaluation, reduction, and eventual elimination of persistent
pollutants that threaten human health.

The NGO community continues to track ratification of the Stockholm and
Rotterdam treaties with great interest, but the cautious optimism of
five years ago is long gone. In his 2001 speech linked to Earth Day,
President Bush announced his support for the Stockholm Convention,
reminding the country that "the risks are great, and the need for
action is clear." These words now have a hollow ring, as the United
States is once again left far behind in the international
environmental policy arena, and U.S. public health remains at risk.


Kristin S. Schafer program coordinator with Pesticide Action Network
North America (PANNA), is co-author of Nowhere to Hide: Persistent
Toxic Chemicals in the U.S. Food Supply (San Francisco: PANNA, 2001)
and Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate
Accountability (San Francisco: PANNA, 2004). She can be reached at:

Daryl Ditz of the Center for International Environmental Law and Carl
Smith of the Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Education
contributed to this article, previous versions of which appeared in
the September 2001 (vol. 6, no. 31) and September 2002 (vol.7, no.11)
issues of Foreign Policy In Focus.