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U.N. conference on toxic chemicals seeks global ban
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) -- Delegates from over 120 countries start a week of U.N. talks on Monday to hammer out a global treaty to curb and perhaps ultimately ban the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
"Toxic and very long-lasting, persistent organic pollutants endanger the well-being of our planet and all living things," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
"The global treaty approaching completion in December is the necessary global defense against these poisons," Toepfer said in a statement.
Scientists say POPs -- which include DDTs and PCBs -- are among the most dangerous and long-lasting pollutants released into the environment by human activity.
Highly toxic, they cause an array of adverse effects, including death, disease and birth defects among humans and animals.
They are widely used as pesticides in agriculture and forestry and in a range of industrial activities from fire retardants in plastics and additives in paints to electric transformers.
Highly stable compounds, they can last for years or decades before breaking down and circulate the globe in air and water through a process dubbed by scientists as the "grasshopper effect."
Pristine habitats not immune
Conservationists say POPs have had a devastating impact on wildlife populations worldwide, even in pristine arctic and antarctic habitats thousands of kilometres from the original source.
"POPs are among the most serious human threats to wildlife," Clifton Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Toxic Initiative, told Reuters.
POPs accumulate in body fat, making cold region animals like polar bears and seals particularly susceptible to their effects.
Scientists have attributed sexual development changes in polar bears to POPs, including feminisation in male bears and a diminished ability to reproduce.
The decline of seal populations in the North Sea and dolphins off the Atlantic coast of France have been linked to POPs.
The diet of the Inuit peoples of the Arctic relies heavily on fatty foods with high concentrations of PCBs.
As a result, Inuit mothers typically have five times the level of PCBs in their breastmilk as mothers in industrialised countries, according to the United Nations.
POPs have also been linked to cancer and several other human diseases and health defects.
Industry seen falling in line
"Countries are coming together in South Africa to reach agreement for the sake of people living today and in generations to come. I believe they will meet this challenge," said UNEP's Toepfer.
One diplomatic source close to the talks said the European Union was leading the charge for the elimination of the 12 main POPs singled out for urgent attention, as well as the banning of new chemicals with POP characteristics.
But conservationists complain that the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are seeking to water down aspects of the treaty.
Host country South Africa is pushing to retain the use of DDTs for malaria control -- a position that is widely expected to be accepted.
Malaria remains a lethal force in Africa, killing more than one million people annually on the world's poorest continent.
Industry is also seen coming on track, as it did with CFCs, once widely used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and aerosol sprays and linked to the depletion of the ozone layer.
"Industry was initially reluctant to phase out CFCs, but then it developed alternatives and profited from them. We see the same happening with POPs," said one U.N. official.
The Johannesburg conference is the fifth round of global talks on POPs and is expected to lead to a treaty that will be signed at a diplomatic conference scheduled to take place in Stockholm next May.
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