by Joan Lowy, Scripps Howard News Service
A treaty that bans or severely restricts 12 of the world's most
environmentally dangerous chemicals, known as the dirty dozen,
went into effect Monday without the United States.
Chemicals covered by the agreement, known as the Stockholm Convention,
include polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, used to insulate electric
transformers and as additives in plastics and paint. Other chemicals
in the treaty include pesticides such as DDT.
All the chemicals are characterized by their ability to remain
in the environment for years or decades with little erosion and
their tendency to accumulate in the fat tissue of animals and
Wind and water currents have spread the chemicals to even the
most remote corners of the planet. Every person in the world carries
traces of at least some of the dirty dozen within their body,
including children who received doses of the chemicals while in
The United States and most Western countries banned PCBs, DDT
and other substances on the list in the 1970s, but some are still
in use in developing countries.
"The Stockholm Convention will save lives and protect the
natural environment, particularly in the poorest communities and
countries, by banning the production and use of some of the most
toxic chemicals known to humankind," United Nations' Environment
Program executive director Klaus Toepfer said.
Negotiations on the treaty were completed in 2001. On Feb. 17,
France became the 50th country to adopt implementing legislation,
triggering a 90-day countdown for the treaty to become binding.
So far, 59 countries have ratified the treaty.
President Bush signed the treaty at a ceremony in the White House
Rose Garden three months after he took office, noting that the
pollutants covered by the treaty have been "linked to developmental
defects, cancer and other grave problems in humans and animals."
However, the administration has since raised concerns that a
key feature of the agreement - the treaty's mechanism for the
future addition of new chemicals to the list of banned substances
- might undermine national sovereignty. Implementing legislation
has stalled in Congress.
A meeting of the countries party to the convention is scheduled
for next May in Uruguay. If the United States is not a party to
the agreement before then, "it will put our chemical industry
at a disadvantage," said World Wildlife Fund vice president
Brooks Yeager, a former State Department official who was the
chief U.S. negotiator on the treaty. "Chemicals that may
be added to the treaty in the future may include chemicals that
are manufactured by U.S. companies."
Greg Lebedev, president of the American Chemistry Council, a
trade association for the chemical industry, said Congress should
"act to assure that the U.S. can join the international community
in implementing a treaty it helped bring about."
The pesticide DDT is the only chemical on the dirty dozen list
not fully banned by the treaty. The agreement gives 25 countries,
most of them in Africa, permission to continue to use DDT under
limited circumstances to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Chemicals considered possible candidates for addition to the
treaty include certain brominated flame retardants that have been
found in the breast milk of American and European women and the
pesticide lindane, which has been banned in some countries but
is used in the United States to treat head lice in children.