Protecting human health and the environment

Protecting human health and the environment:
A guide to the Rotterdam Convention on
hazardous chemicals and pesticides

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In the Japanese seaside city of Minamata, in the mid-1950s, residents began to notice cats exhibiting bizarre behaviour – moving in a jerky fashion, stumbling, sometimes falling into the nearby bay and drowning. In 1956 (although in retrospect it was clear that some cases had surfaced earlier) similar difficulties began to appear in people: loss of motor control, dizziness, slurred speech, confused thinking, convulsions, and even death. By the end of that year nearly 100 victims of this syndrome had been identified and over 20 had died. Investigations showed that the cause was the heavy metal mercury, which permeated the sediments of the bay from which many residents (and cats) consumed seafood. The mercury came from a local factory that manufactured acetaldehyde, used to produce plastics. It had entered the bay for decades in the plant's wastewater and, in the organic form of methyl mercury, it had entered the food chain.

It is now better understood that some chemicals, once they are released into the world, cause toxic reactions, persist in the environment for years and even decades, and may travel thousands of kilometres from where they were used.While more alert to such dangers, citizens and Governments also
remain in favour of jobs and thriving economies (Minimata's acetaldehyde plant, it should be pointed out, was the major local employer), and deciding which chemicals are acceptable and which pose too many risks is a complicated matter . . . made a lot more complicated in an ever-modernizing world
where there are now 70,000 chemicals on the market and 1,500 new ones are introduced each year.

How do you deal with such a situation? How do you balance the benefits and risks? To respond to this challenge, the world’s Governments adopted an international treaty in 1998 called the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.

© UNEP - FAO 2008