Southern Cone Launches Battle against POPs
By Diana Cariboni*
Thousands of tons of pesticides, among other persistent organic pollutants (POPs), continue to be used in the Southern Cone, where few regulations are in place.
MONTEVIDEO - The fight to eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the countries of South America's Southern Cone is limited by the weakness of the state and scarcity of funds, say the authorities. But environmentalists argue that what is lacking are effective policies.
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay signed by have not yet ratified the International Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which establishes measures to eliminate or reduce the 12 substances considered most dangerous to human health and the environment.
The POPs include nine pesticides, three byproducts of industrial processes and of combustion (dioxins, furanes and hexachlorobenzene) and a chemical used in the cooling of electrical generators (PCBs).
Exposure to these compounds increases a person's risk for developing cancer, hormonal or neurological disorders, infertility, debilitation of the immune system, and diabetes.
POPs are substances that are highly stable and contaminate water, air and soil. Once they enter the food chain they accumulate in the fatty tissues and organs of animals and humans.
But many banned pesticides continue to be traded across borders as contraband. Argentina prohibited the use of DDT in 1990. "But it appears in farm products because it continues to be used in Ecuador and Brazil. The major problem are the mechanisms for regulation and control of these substances," Pablo Issaly, of Argentina's Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, admitted in a conversation with Tierramérica.
"We are legislating as if these were ideal countries, without conforming to the social and economic reality. The demand for waste incinerators (which produce dioxins) is multiplying, instead of seeking policies for efficient waste management," commented Javier de Souza, with the Argentine office of the Action Network on Pesticides and Alternatives for Latin America (RAP-AL).
The POPS Convention adopted in May 2001 in Stockholm, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), was signed by 151 countries. To date, only 21 have ratified it, while 50 countries must ratify the document for it to take effect.
However, many believe that the key to the Convention's success lies in financing to help poor countries comply with the elimination and reduction targets for the use and production of POPs.
Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile each received 500,000 dollars for their POPs compliance plans, funds provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Argentina is still awaiting the green light.
According to Uruguay's National Inventory on Emission of Dioxins and Furanes, conducted in 2000 with UNEP support, the country produces 28 grams EQT (toxicity equivalent) per year of these substances. This is very little compared to the 1995 estimates for several industrialized countries: 3,981 for Japan, 2,744 for the United States, 873 for France.
The principal sources were the burning of agricultural and domestic waste, forest fires and the controlled incineration of hospital waste.
"This is a result with major uncertainties," due to the technical limitations involved in these measurements, acknowledged chemist Jacqueline González, of Uruguay's National Environmental Directorate.
"While the government takes these steps in the right direction, it also authorizes the installation of hospital incinerators or a chlorine dioxide-based cellulose factory, processes that release dioxins," complained activist María Selva Ortiz, of the Friends of the Earth Network.
Argentina banned the use, import and sale in 1999 of another POP, the insecticide dodecachloro (Mirex), but not its manufacture. In neighboring Uruguay, dodecachloro is still permitted, although its use is limited to 200 kilos of the active substance over three million hectares, according to official figures.
The situation in Paraguay is more serious. "On two million hectares of farmland, 8,100 tons of pesticides are used per year. Regulation is minimal, almost nonexistent," admits Gloria León, director of Environmental Quality Control of Paraguay, during a seminar that RAP-AL organized in Montevideo recently to promote dialogue between governments and environmental organizations about POPs.
The absence of state regulation and control is evident when it comes to the use of obsolete pesticides -- expired, banned or deteriorated substances.
"The quantity of obsolete pesticides circulating in Latin America is not known," Bolivian chemist Tania Santiváñez told Tierramérica.
In the Bolivian departments of Cochabamba, La Paz and Santa Cruz, Santiváñez found 14.7 tons of these toxins during an investigation ordered by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Her findings left the government speechless, as most of the substances were located in the customs storehouses, where people were exposed, and also outdoors. Now, a national inventory of pesticides is to be carried out, the first in the Southern Cone, said Santiváñez.
The FAO estimates there are 500,000 tons of these obsolete pesticides still existing worldwide.
* Diana Cariboni is an IPS editor.