Talks target Toxins Treaty sought on “dirty dozen”

by Joby Warrick, The Washington Post
reprinted from the Anchorage Daily News, June 29, 1998

To the Inuits of northern Canada, it is one of the scariest poisons imaginable; an invisible toxin that has infiltrated the cells of Arctic creatures from plankton to people and turned ordinary whales into floating hazardous waste dumps.

To governments in central Africa, it is a chemical safety net, a primary defense against a worsening malaria epidemic that kill 5,000 children each day in countries south of the equator.

Today, officials from as many as 120 nations will begin to try to reconcile these starkly contrasting views of DDT, the infamous insecticide long banned in the United States but still widely used in many parts of the developing world.

Armed with new evidence about the pesticide’s global spread, negotiators will gather in Montreal to start working on an unprecedented United Nations treaty to phase out DDT and 11 other toxic compounds that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and ecological disruption.

The 12 chemicals, called “persistent organic pollutants,” also include dioxins, PCBs and other industrial compounds known for their ability to travel long distances and concentrate in animal tissues. Largely unknown before World War II, many substances on the dirty-dozen list are present in trace levels in virtually every person on Earth.

Some of the worst cases of contamination are found in the Arctic, where high levels of DDTs, dioxins and PCBs are found in humans and marine creatures thousands of miles from the nearest industrial centers. Levels of the toxins have remained steady for more than a decade, even though production of most of them has been banned in Western countries for more than a quarter-century.

“This is a global problem and therefore requires a global solution,” Rafe Pomerance, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the environment, told a recent Washington news conference. “Many of these problems we cannot solve alone. They exist and are created outside of our borders.”

Governments at the Montreal meeting will frame the proposed accord this week (Week of June 29th) in anticipation of signing the treaty in 2000. But negotiations are complicated by national interests and concern over other kinds of public health threats - particularly malaria.

Malaria remains a major health problem in more than 90 countries and kills as many as 2.7 million people each year, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. DDT remains the chosen pesticide for developing countries because it is relatively cheap and is less acutely toxic than many alternatives. The World Health Organization continues to endorse DDT as a “most valuable tool,” for controlling malaria, although it has begun issuing warnings about the spread of pesticide through the food chain.

But environmental groups, citing evidence of long-term ecological damage, are calling for an expedited phaseout of all 12 compounds - along with economic and technical assistance to help developing counties find replacements.