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Restricting POPs: Why the Stockholm Convention matters

Over a decade ago, more than 150 countries signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), a global treaty to manage chemical substances that warrant global control due to their PBT (persistence, toxicity, bioaccumulation) characteristics and ability for long-range environmental transport. This treaty is considered a significant environmental agreement, and is broadly supported by governments, NGOs, and industry. Although the United States signed the agreement in 2001, the Senate has yet to provide advice and consent to ratification. U.S. participation as a full party to the Stockholm Convention is needed to ensure the treaty fulfills its objective.

Once substances are listed as POPs under the Convention, their production and use are significantly curtailed or eliminated. The Convention was originally conceived and structured to address legacy substances that were not in production and use or in general global decline. In recent years, the scope of the Convention’s work has changed; governments are now considering industrial chemicals that are in active use. This includes substances that do not necessarily fit well within the Convention’s established scientific criteria and processes.

Future nominations will likely involve more “borderline” cases that arguably do not meet the treaty’s listing criteria. Some substances being considered as POPs candidates are heavily integrated in the global supply chain and provide essential benefits to society. This has the potential to significantly expand the scope of the treaty and could impact a broad range of products that rely on these chemistries. Given this recent development, the Convention is at an interesting turning point. The treaty includes a risk-based nomination and evaluation process, which could be reinforced with U.S. participation as a full party. In particular, greater consideration needs to be given to how the evaluation process is applied to substances that fall outside the “traditional POPs” and proper consideration needs to be given to the risk-based principles that are inherent components of the Convention.

Next Steps

The Stockholm Convention’s Parties will meet next in April 2017. Because the United States is not a full party, it will participate as an observer government, with no formal role in the decision-making process. But U.S. leadership is critical to a meaningful evaluation of the approach to reviewing candidate substances, and updating the treaty’s policy and processes to ensure current scientific best practices and evidence are integrated into the Convention’s decision-making framework. In April, governments should consider the following elements as part of this evaluation:

  • Ensuring the quality of scientific data considered and employing a weight-of-evidence evaluation of that data
  • Taking full account of all stakeholder input based on scientific merit
  • Focusing on substances that meet all qualifying criteria under the convention including understanding where those criteria may not be applicable or suitable for certain substances
  • Factoring the critical benefits that a chemical may provide to society, including contributions to other important sustainability goals, into any decisions to regulate a chemical
  • Taking actions that result in actual, meaningful benefits to human health and the environment

Encouraging the Convention to continue stakeholder discussions and ensure its decisions are based on the best available scientific evidence requires broad support from governments who are Parties to the Convention. Unfortunately, the U.S. voice is largely silent because the Senate has not yet acted on the treaty. This is increasingly problematic as actions under the Convention affect not only chemical manufacturers, but have a broad impact on members of the value chain and the global economy. As the Convention considers chemicals that are still widely used in the global supply chain, the U.S. voice will be even more valuable in the Parties’ discussions.

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