New U.N. treaty on toxic exports

It’s taken more than 5 years, but on Feb. 24, the Rotterdam Convention—an agreement governing trade in a specified list of hazardous chemicals and pesticides—was finally ratified by enough nations to become a United Nations treaty. Most nations, however, had been abiding by its provisions on a voluntary basis since its drafting in 1998. In essence, the new treaty bans exportation of each listed chemical without the explicit prior informed consent (PIC) of an importing nation (SN: 9/19/98, p. 181).

The United States has signed, but not ratified, the convention.

The U.N. motivation for drafting the treaty was to keep wealthy industrial nations from dumping their banned chemicals on poor or poorly informed developing countries whose decision makers might be unaware of the toxic nature of the chemicals, their environmental persistence, or the costly precautions essential to using the chemicals safely.

Under PIC regulations, such toxicity and safety information for listed chemicals must be distributed to all of the treaty’s signatory nations. When a chemical gets added to the treaty, each country has 9 months to add its name to a U.N. list of states unwilling to trade in the substance. Exporters must consult the list before moving the chemicals across international borders.

The PIC treaty now regulates 37 agents, including DDT, asbestos, chlordane, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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