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Toxic Lice Treatment Under Scrutiny

Raúl Pierri

A group of experts will study the effects on human health of four toxic chemicals, including the widely used lice treatment lindane, to consider their potential inclusion on a list of products banned under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay, May 6 (IPS) -
The creation of this study panel was among the final decisions adopted at the 1st Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention, which ended Friday in the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este.

At the urging of environmental organisations, a number of governments and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the government delegates attending the conference resolved to set up a research committee responsible for analysing products that could be added to the list of 12 toxic pollutants, known as the - dirty dozen”, already prohibited by the Convention.

Norway proposed the inclusion of pentabromodiphenyl ether (penta-BDE), a flame retardant, the European Union wants to add the pesticide chlordecone and hexabromobiphenyl (Hexa-BB), another flame retardant, while Mexico has suggested including a group of pesticides known as hexachlorocyclohexanes (HCH), which include lindane, commonly used to treat head lice and scabies.

The announcement was made at the end of the Conference by UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer, who was accompanied by Uruguayan Environment Minister Mariano Arana and the acting executive secretary of the Stockholm Convention, Canadian John Buccini.

The process of analysing the four substances proposed for inclusion on the POPs blacklist will take at least three years, according to Buccini. The research group will be based in Geneva, where the Stockholm Convention international headquarters is located.

Although lindane is most frequently used on children infected with head lice, its use is already prohibited in at least 52 countries and severely restricted in another 33, activists from the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) told IPS.

Like the 12 POPs already banned by the Convention, this pesticide accumulates in very cold climates, like the Arctic, where low temperatures prevent it from evaporating. It has spread to the fauna in the regions of the far North and particularly affects the indigenous peoples who depend on the fatty tissues and meat of animals like whales and seals for their survival.

The activists reported that lindane can damage the nervous and immune systems, and that scientific research has linked its use to brain tumours in children.

Meanwhile, the delegates agreed to uphold the exemptions for countries that need to use the insecticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) to fight malaria, although they called for a search for effective, affordable alternatives, in order to gradually phase out the use of this chemical.

DDT, which is included in the ”dirty dozen”, is still widely used as an effective and low-cost weapon against the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, which kills more than one million people around the world every year, primarily in Africa. A total of around 300 million people contract the disease annually.

”The convention required this meeting to determine whether DDT continues to be essential to health protection and the decision was yes,” said Buccini, who pointed out that the list of exemptions is reviewed every three years.

In addition, the conference called for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to cooperate in each review, and in the search for alternatives to DDT.

Toepfer noted that although there is agreement that DDT cannot be eliminated yet, a major effort is underway worldwide to come up with alternatives for combating malaria.

The Stockholm Convention, which was signed in 2001, is aimed at eliminating or reducing levels of 12 specific POPs: nine pesticides (aldrine, chlordane, DDT, dieldrine, endrine, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphen), two unintentional byproducts of chemical production and the burning of chlorinated substances (dioxins and furans), and a group of industrial pollutants known collectively as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The majority of these chemicals are organochlorines or byproducts of their production or use.

These chemicals, which are highly toxic to animals and humans, are stable and persistent, lasting for years or decades before degrading into less dangerous forms; travel widely through the air and water; and accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms - which means they can be passed along the food chain.

Exposure to these 12 toxins has been shown to weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cancer, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, infertility and diabetes.

The Convention, adopted in May 2001 in Stockholm under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has been signed so far by 151 countries and ratified by 97. It entered into force in May 2004.

The conference in Punta del Este drew 636 delegates from 133 countries, one-third of whom were representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who attended as observers.

Toepfer highlighted the efforts of activists, stating that IPEN and other NGOs have played a key role by focusing the attention of governments and the public on the need to eliminate these chemicals.

Governments must make their own contribution by rapidly reducing the risks posed to the environment by toxic chemicals with a long life span, he added.

Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, who attended Friday's closing session, underlined the importance of tackling the world's environmental challenges, ”as social problems that must be resolved at a political level.”

The Convention should be conceived of as part of ”a sustainable development project in which the economy is at the service of people, and people are effectively recognised as part of society and their natural environment,” he added.

The 2nd Conference of the Parties will be held next year in Geneva. (END/2005)

Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.



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