Global clean-up of toxic PCBs
Geneva, 10 June 2004 – Governments, donor agencies and commercial firms from around the world are meeting here for two days to promote international efforts to rid the world of PCBs, one of 12 highly toxic chemicals targeted for elimination by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of synthetic organic chemicals that are amongst the most widespread of all environmental pollutants, found worldwide in air, water, soil, food – and the fatty tissues of humans and animals.
“The financial and technical challenges of eliminating PCBs from the planet will require a vigorous partnership between the public and private sectors,” said Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), under whose auspices the Stockholm Convention was adopted.
“While international donors and national governments will set priorities and invest tens of millions of dollars, commercial firms have the expertise and technologies to perform much of the actual clean-up work,” he said.
Due to their low flammability, PCBs have been used extensively in electrical equipment such as transformers and large capacitors used in power lines and major facilities. They have also been used as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, and plastics.
Many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of PCBs have been commercially manufactured since 1929. Annual world production peaked in the late 1960s at close to 60,000 tonnes.
Although production is now banned under the Convention, PCBs continue to pose a risk to human health and the environment because of the wide array of PCB-containing electrical equipment still in service. Tonnes of wastes containing or contaminated by PCBs are also being held at temporary storage sites, particularly in developing countries.
In addition, large quantities of PCBs have been discharged into soils, rivers and lakes over the years. Further releases continue to result due to accidents, the repair and decommissioning of equipment, the demolition of buildings and the continued existence of imperfectly sealed landfills and waste drums.
The Convention, which entered into force on 17 May 2004, gives governments until 2025 to phase out “in-place equipment” containing PCBs, as long as the equipment is maintained in a way that prevents leaks. It also grants another three years to ensure the environmentally sound management of PCB-contaminated wastes.
The Convention recognizes that, for economic and practical reasons, it will take some time to completely eliminate PCBs. Equipment containing PCBs is dispersed widely across the countryside, notably along electric power-line grids. Replacing all of this equipment immediately would be impractical and expensive, especially for financially strapped developing countries.
With the Convention now in force, it is widely recognized that the need for financing and commercial services for destroying PCBs will expand dramatically. The 9-10 June meeting, which is sponsored by UNEP and financed by the Government of Switzerland, offers donors and PCB-related industries the opportunity to discuss upcoming needs for PCB management and disposal, the international policy framework, logistical issues and available capacities for PCB storage, management, transport and disposal.
The Global Environment Facility serves as the financial mechanism for the Convention on an interim basis and will be responsible for channelling much of the international funding for finding and destroying PCBs.
Large numbers of people have been exposed to PCBs through food contamination. Consumption of PCB-contaminated rice oil in Japan in 1968 and in Taiwan in 1979 caused pigmentation of nails and mucous membranes and swelling of the eyelids, along with fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.
Due to the persistence of PCBs in their mothers' bodies, children born up to seven years after the Taiwan incident showed developmental delays and behavioral problems. Similarly, children of mothers who ate large amounts of contaminated fish from Lake Michigan showed poorer short-term memory function. PCBs also suppress the human immune system and are listed as probable human carcinogens.
PCBs are also toxic to fish, killing them at higher doses and causing spawning failures at lower doses. Research also links PCBs to reproductive failure and suppression of the immune system in various wild animals, such as seals and mink.
Every human in the world carries traces of POPs in his or her body. POPs are highly stable compounds that can last for years or decades before breaking down. They circulate globally through a process known as the "grasshopper effect". POPs released in one part of the world can, through a repeated process of evaporation and deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source.
Note to journalists: For additional information, please contact Eric Falt, UNEP Spokesperson, at +254 20 623292, Mobile: +254 (0) 733 682656, or firstname.lastname@example.org; Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media at +254 20 623084, Mobile: +254 733 632755, or email@example.com, or Michael Williams at +41-22-917 8242, +41-79-409 1528 (cell) or firstname.lastname@example.org. See also www.pops.int.