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Persistent organic pollutants – a new family of substances for ECHA
Have you ever heard of Silent spring? This environmental science book written by Rachel Carson in the 1960s called on people to question which chemicals their governments allow into the environment. For the last two decades, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been in the spotlight due to increased global efforts to minimise the risks they pose to the environment and health. So how are POPs regulated and what will ECHA’s future role with them be?
POPs are chemical substances that remain in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food chain, and pose a risk to the environment and human health. Due to their intrinsic properties, these substances can also be transported across long distances, far from the locations where they have been produced or used.
They therefore have a high potential to contaminate, with samples found in our everyday environment but also even in the most remote places on the planet, like the Arctic. Once released, it is difficult to reduce their presence in the environment and humans. The impact on ecology and society is long-lasting and can even span across generations.
How are POPs currently regulated?
The chemical substances that have been identified as POPs include:
- pesticides (such as DDT);
- industrial chemicals (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which were widely used in electrical equipment); or
- unintentional by-products formed during industrial processes, degradation or combustion (such as dioxins and furans).
For the past two decades, POPs have been regulated at the global level. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants (commonly known as the Aarhus Protocol) was adopted in 1998. This was closely followed in 2001, by the adoption of the Stockholm Convention which identified the initial 12 POPs (dirty dozen). Since then, this list has been expanded to include 33 POPs.
Some examples of newer POPs, which are gradually being phased out worldwide, include:
- perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), used in consumer products, such as some outdoor textiles and leather goods; metal plating; fire-fighting foams; and in stain repellents; and
- hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD) widely used as a flame retardant additive in textiles, electrical and electronic appliances, and construction materials.
At the European Union level, the POPs Regulation is the Union’s effort to implement the Stockholm Convention and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution’s Protocol on POPs. The regulation aims to eliminate the manufacturing, placing on the market and use of POPs, whether on their own, in mixtures or in articles.
It contains provisions to minimise the unintentional production and release of POPs, and ensure the safe management of stockpiles and waste. Furthermore, Member States have set up emission inventories for unintentionally produced POPs, national implementation plans, and mechanisms to monitor and exchange information.
How POPs are linked to ECHA's current work
Already today, ECHA has an indirect role with POPs. ECHA’s work to identify substances of very high concern (SVHCs) has been a springboard for identifying potential POPs. ECHA also manages the restriction process which further supports the EU’s work for proposing new POPs to the Stockholm Convention.
Through evaluation activities under REACH and the Biocidal Products Regulation, ECHA generates data and assesses potential persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic/very persistent and very bioaccumulative (PBT/vPvB) substances. Furthermore, ECHA’s PBT Expert Group has already provided advice on several POP assessments.
ECHA's new POPs tasks
In 2019, ECHA will receive new responsibilities under the recast of the POPs Regulation. Our role will be to support the European Commission and the Member States in fulfilling their international obligations on POPs.
- Support the identification and proposals of new POP substances to the Stockholm Convention;
- Act as an interface for reporting duties on implementing the POPs Regulation. This would involve receiving and disseminating implementation reports from the Member State competent authorities, compiling a Union overview on the implementation and supporting the Commission to regularly generate Union implementation plans.
Other envisaged tasks include promoting an exchange of information on POPs between various EU actors and third countries, helping the Commission’s work in the POPs Review Committee and supporting POPs enforcement activities through ECHA’s Enforcement Forum.
Human milk - a POPs tracking tool
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), exposure of humans to very small doses of POPs can lead to increased cancer risk, reproductive disorders, altered immune systems, neurobehavioural impairment, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity and increased birth defects, among other things.
Since 1976, the WHO’s Food Contamination Monitoring and Assessment Programme has collected and evaluated information on levels of POPs in foods, including human milk. Human milk can provide information on the exposure of mothers and infants to the pollutants.
After the Stockholm Convention was ratified, the revised WHO guidelines for developing a national protocol describe the basic study design that can be used to monitor human exposure over time. This will help to see how effective the Stockholm Convention is in reducing the release of these chemicals into the environment.
|Chemicals and pesticides use has grown rapidly since the late 20th century. While increased production has supported growing lifestyle demands, the potential of some chemicals to pollute has been underestimated. Image: iStock.com/Nastco|
Text by Irene Poza Latorre
Published on: 20 November 2018
Top image: © iStock.com/Grabiecz
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Committee for Socio-Economic
1-4 and 8-11 June (tentative);
7-11 and 14-18 September (tentative)
Committee for Risk Assessment:
1-5 and 8-12 June;
7-11 and 14-18 September (tentative)
Member State Committee:
Biocidal Products Committee:
Management Board meeting: