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FAO Press Release 02/19

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Geneva, 21 February 2002 - A committee of government-appointed experts has concluded that three widely-used pesticides and all forms of asbestos should be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls.

The first up for action is monocrotophos. This insecticide is applied in many developing countries, particularly in Asia, to control insects and spider mites on cotton, citrus, rice, maize and other crops. It is actively traded and is manufactured by more than a dozen firms, almost all in Asia.

Like other organosphosphorus insecticides, monocrotophos poses an acute hazard to hundreds of thousands of farm workers, particularly in developing countries where the lack of protective clothing and mechanical equipment makes it more likely that people will come in direct contact with chemicals. Medical effects include nausea, diarrhoea, blurred vision, and, in severe cases, respiratory depression, convulsions and death.

Monocrotophos is also highly toxic to birds and mammals. For example, studies suggest that over the 25 years monocrotophos was used in Hungary it caused more damage to wild birds than any other pesticide.

Alternatives to this pesticide exist for each combination of pests and crops now targeted. Today's recommendation by scientific experts sets the stage for a final decision at a political meeting next September on whether to add monocrotophos to the list of chemicals and pesticides whose import can be legitimately and unilaterally banned.

Controlling this pesticide is a major achievement in itself, but it also highlights concerns over the general problem of cheap organophosphates. Generally created by a major multinational, these pesticides are often widely manufactured after the patent expires, and use continues despite growing evidence of illness and death. The experts' decision also reconfirms the right to make trade judgments on the basis of how a pesticide is actually used in the field, rather than on the basis of the manufacturer's instructions.

The Interim Chemical Review Committee's (ICRC) recommendation now goes forward to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, which meets in Bonn from 30 September to 4 October. If adopted there, monocrotophos will join the Prior Informed Consent procedure.

The recommendation to add five remaining forms of asbestos to the PIC list (one is already listed) launches a process that will conclude in 2003. The Committee's review of asbestos was triggered by bans in the EU and Chile (under the Convention a review is initiated when two countries in two different regions ban or severely restrict a chemical; the monocrotophos review was triggered by bans in Australia and Hungary).

The attractions of asbestos include its high tensile strength, fibrous nature, resistance to heat, and inert chemistry. Once widely used as insulation for houses and specialized equipment, asbestos was eliminated in many countries when it became understood that its tiny fibres were being inhaled into the lungs of workers and residents and causing cancer, other illnesses, and death. Asbestos is still used in seals, gaskets, joints, brakes, armaments, and other applications, although cost-effective substitutes are increasingly available for most applications.

"This decision of the Committee is another big step towards eliminating the risks associated with asbestos and its products. Even in countries like mine, where these products have been banned for a long time, they remain a major problem when decontaminating buildings and paying the huge costs of treating people with serious diseases caused by asbestos," said ICRC Chairman Reiner Arndt of Germany.

The Committee has also launched the process for listing the related pesticides Granox TBC and Spinox T, a mixture of fungicides and the highly toxic insecticide Carbofuran. This case was initiated by Senegal ("severely hazardous pesticide formulations" require only one notifying country to start the listing process). Suspicious of growing reports of illnesses and deaths, the governmentstarted to map incidents of rural poisoning.

Its findings pointed the finger at Granox TBC/Spinox T, which is used in a powdered form by peanut farmers. In developed countries seeds are often treated and planted mechanically, thus protecting farmers from contact. In many developing countries, however, the farmer works without protective clothing and seeds manually. The resulting close contact with the pesticide produced hundreds of cases of poisoning featuring fevers, chest and abdominal pains, vomiting, insomnia - and at least some deaths. In this respect, 25 countries and the EU have no registration of powdered carbofuran formulations.

The fourth chemical, DNOC, is an insecticide, weedkiller and fungicide. It is highly toxic to humans and also poses a high risk to other organisms. The review process was initiated by bans in Peru and the EU. Once widely used, DNOC is being targeted for inclusion in the PIC procedure in order to further reduce its remaining uses.

Some 70,000 different chemicals are available on the market today, and 1,500 new ones are introduced every year. This poses a major challenge to many governments who must attempt to monitor and manage these potentially dangerous substances. Many pesticides that have been banned or whose use has been severely restricted in industrialized countries are still marketed and used in developing countries.

Responding to increased scientific understanding of the health and environmental risks of long-term exposures to low levels of some of these chemicals, combined with the clear dangers posed by aging and leaking stockpiles and chemical dump sites, the international community adopted the Rotterdam Convention in 1998 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO).

The Rotterdam Convention gives importing countries the tools and information they need to identify potentially hazardous chemicals and to exclude those they cannot manage safely. When trade is permitted, requirements for labelling and providing information upon export on potential health and environmental effects promote the safe use of the chemicals.

The Convention has been signed by 72 governments (plus the EC) and has thus far been ratified by 18 countries; it will enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification. In the interim governments have agreed to apply the prior informed consent provisions of the Convention on a voluntary basis. The original Convention list included 22 pesticides and 5 industrial chemicals(*). Since then, four pesticides have been added. The four chemicals described above represent additional new entries into the legally-binding PIC process.


(*) The Convention covers the following 22 hazardous pesticides: 2,4,5-T, aldrin, captafol, chlordane, chlordimeform, chlorobenzilate, DDT, 1,2-dibromoethane (EDB), dieldrin, dinoseb, fluoroacetamide, HCH, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, lindane, mercury compounds, and pentachlorophenol, plus certain formulations of methamidophos, methyl-parathion, monocrotophos, parathion, and phosphamidon.

It also covers five industrial chemicals: crocidolite, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), polychlorinated terphenyls (PCT) and tris (2,3 dibromopropyl) phosphate.

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