BONN, 30 September -- Concerned that extensive use of the insecticide monocrotophos is harming human health and the environment, officials from 100 governments are meeting to decide whether all formulations of monocrotophos should be added to a list of 26 pesticides and five industrial chemicals subject to the prior informed consent procedure under the Rotterdam Convention.

Monocrotophos 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 appropriate application 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 did any other pesticide. Fortunately, alternatives to this pesticide exist for each combination of pests and crops now targeted.

"Ensuring that no country will import this dangerous pesticide without full knowledge of the risks involved is a vital first step to preventing any further poisonings," said Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. "Thanks to the Rotterdam Convention, we now have an effective system in place for avoiding many of the deadly mistakes made in past decades when people were more naïve about the dangers of toxic chemicals."

"Agriculture cannot do fully without pesticides. However, the uncontrolled marketing and selling of highly toxic pesticides like monocrotophos poses serious risks to poor farmers in developing countries. Protective clothing is generally too expensive or is difficult to wear under hot conditions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is working with farmers to promote integrated pest management (IPM) to minimize the use of toxic pesticides and with government agencies to improve pesticide policies and management," said Louise Fresco, FAO Assistant Director-General for Agriculture.

Controlling this pesticide would be a major achievement in itself, but it also highlights concerns over the broader problem of cheap and highly toxic organophosphates. Often created by a major multinational, these pesticides are now widely manufactured, and use continues despite growing evidence of illness and death. Imposing trade controls on monocrotophos would also reconfirm 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 decision by the Ninth Meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade will be based on a recommendation by the Interim Chemical Review Committee, which is the Convention's scientific body.

At present certain severely hazardous formulations of monocrotophos are subject to the interim Prior Informed Consent Procedure; if the recommendation of the Interim Chemical Review Committee is adopted in Bonn, all formulations of monocrotophos will be included.

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.

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. It also requires countries not to export chemicals against the decisions of importing countries. When trade is permitted, requirements for labelling and providing information upon export on potential health and environmental effects reduce the risk associated with the use of the chemicals.

The Convention has been signed by 72 governments (plus the EU) and has thus far been ratified by 33 countries; it will enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg countries agreed to promote ratification and implementation of the Rotterdam Convention so that it can enter into force by 2003. 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. Monocrotophos would therefore become the 32nd chemical on the list if governments agree this week to list it.

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. Since September 1998 four additional pesticides (binapacryl, toxaphene, ethylene oxide and ethylene dichloride) have been added to the interim PIC procedure

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