UN Negotiators Eschew Consensus to Ban Toxic Chemical, Adopt E-Waste Guidelines

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By Bryce Baschuk

May 18 — International chemicals negotiators in Geneva broke a quarter century of precedent and banned a toxic chemical despite opposition from a member country during the conference of parties of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions.

Parties to the Stockholm Convention—which bans the production, use and trade of certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—voted May 16 to prohibit pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative that is linked to brain damage and increased risk for cancer. The ban takes place despite strong opposition from India, a party to the convention.

Switzerland's delegate, Luca Arnold, initiated the decision to vote on procedural grounds after the head of the Indian delegation, Shashi Shekhar, rejected the report of the convention's scientific expert committee, in which India had participated.

Pentachlorophenol is now listed under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention with specific exemptions for utility poles and their cross-arms. India had asked members to also create an exemption from the ban for the use of the wood preservative in the production of medium-density fiber board and in impregnated particle boards for at least 10 years, but that request was denied.

This was the first time a voting procedure—rather than a declaration of unanimous consent—had been conducted by the Stockholm Convention. Some observers said it could be considered a game-changing event in the history of the chemical negotiations.

“This needed to happen, as too often environmental progress can be blocked by one or two countries simply shilling for one of their powerful industries,” said Jim Puckett, an activist with Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based nongovernmental organization.

Majority Vote

Since their inception, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) conventions—which hold conference of parties talks every two years—always adopted any decisions or amendments to the treaties on a consensus basis. However, under Basel and Stockholm Convention rules if all efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted a majority vote may be held.

“This levels the playing field in the UN where all too often developed countries bully their way by blocking the will of the majority of developing states, which are most vulnerable to environmental harm from toxic trade and dangerous chemicals,” Puckett told Bloomberg BNA.

New Chemical Listings

Parties to the Stockholm Convention meeting in Geneva over a two-week period agreed to prohibit hexachlorobutadiene, a chemical byproduct linked to hypotension, myocardial dystrophy, nervous disorder, liver function disorders and respiratory tract lesions.

Chemical negotiators also banned polycholrinated napthalenes by listing it in Annexes A and C of the Stockholm Convention with specific exemptions for production of polyfluronapthalenes, including octaxfluoronapthalenes.

Parties to the Stockholm Convention agreed to adopt measures to reduce or eliminate releases from intentional production of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, a carcinogenic chemical.

Stockholm Convention parties rejected new measures to reduce or eliminate use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane; polychlorinated biphenyls; brominated diphenyl, ethers used as flame-retardants; and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride.

E-Waste Guidelines

Parties to the Basel Convention—which governs the international trade of toxic substances—adopted an unfinished text aimed at stemming the 41 million tons of toxic digital equipment that is shipped to developing nations in Africa, Asia and the Latin America each year.

Basel Convention President Andrzej Jagusiewicz forced adoption of the guidelines under unusual circumstances at 1 a.m. on May 16, despite India's objections to the guidelines' contract requirements.

Several countries—including Argentina, India and Mexico—disassociated themselves from the proceeding due to their procedural reservations about Jagusiewicz's threat to vote on the issue and the absence of translators during the late hours of the negotiations.

Participants acknowledged that the e-waste guidelines are far from finished and the most contentious issues were relegated to the annex of the text for further negotiation. It remains unclear how the guidelines would govern the management of cathode ray tubes, electronic parts for product repairs, and secondhand electronic products with limited life spans.

The adoption of the e-waste guidelines was the “worst development of the night,” Puckett said. “The chair gaveled through the interim adoption of a very ill-advised and dangerous e-waste guidelines that will allow electronics waste traders to simply claim electronics as repairable and export such dangerous waste outside of the convention.”

The lack of comprehensive e-waste guidelines has led to the improper disposal of old televisions, computer monitors, mobile phones and other devices that contain toxic materials like mercury, cadmium, asbestos and lead.

Asbestos, Paraquat

During two weeks of meetings, a group of countries blocked efforts to increase transparency about exports of chrysotile asbestos and paraquat dichloride, despite a concerted effort to include them on the Rotterdam Convention's prior informed consent (PIC) procedure for hazardous chemicals and pesticides. 

Russia, India, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Zimbabwe said there was insufficient scientific evidence to support listing chrysotile asbestos in Annex III, which requires countries that export restricted chemicals to adequately notify the receiving country.

Exposure to chrysotile asbestos—used in the production of cement and roofing materials—causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, mesothelioma and asbestosis, according to the World Health Organization.

India, Guatemala, Malaysia and Zimbabwe also blocked the Annex III listing of paraquat dichloride, an herbicide considered toxic to humans and animals, due to concerns about the impact on their respective agricultural industries.

“It is a shame that just a few countries continue to prioritize profit over human rights by blocking the listing of asbestos, paraquat, and other dangerous chemicals under the Rotterdam Convention,” said Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. “Unfortunately, a few countries have catered to industry's demands, chosen to impede access to information about unquestionably hazardous substances, and failed to help reduce double standards that exist today.”

Members agreed to list methamidophos, a pesticide that can affect the central nervous system and may lead to respiratory failure or cardiac arrest, in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention.

Sudan categorically objected to the listing of fenthion 640 ULV, a toxic pesticide, under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention due to concerns that it would negatively affect its domestic agricultural practices. India opposed the listing of trichlorfon, a toxic pesticide.

Compliance Mechanism

Members could not agree upon rules to identify when countries fail to meet their obligations of the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions and when to offer technical and financial assistance to bring them into compliance.

In contact group negotiations, members had difficulty in adopting the so-called “trigger,” a legal tool that would permit either the BRS secretariat or a compliance committee to indicate when a country was not in compliance with the terms of the Rotterdam Convention.

Ultimately, India was the only member to object to the establishment of a compliance mechanism for the Rotterdam Convention. Delegates from the Indian delegation declined repeated requests for comment.

BRS negotiators agreed to further discuss many of the COP's unfinished items during the 2016 meeting of the open-ended working group. The next BRS COP will be held in Geneva April 23 to May 5, 2017.


To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Geneva at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com