The Stockholm Convention Celebrates Its Anniversary: Twenty Years Ago It Came into Effect

 On May 17, 2004, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) came into effect, representing a significant milestone in global environmental protection efforts. The Czech Republic, along with many other countries, became a signatory to this agreement and actively participated in efforts to eliminate these hazardous substances. Today, after two decades of intensive international cooperation, we commemorate this important milestone and reflect on the positive impact the convention has had on human health and the environment worldwide. 

17 May 2024 Kateřina Šebková Lukáš Pokorný

Czech delegation to COP3: Dakar, Senegal

The document was signed on May 22-23, 2001, in Stockholm, Sweden, after several years of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its main goal is the elimination of selected persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are characterized by their ability to persist in the environment, accumulate in living organisms’ bodies, and cross national borders. The Czech Republic committed to restricting the production, use, and release of these substances into the environment. On February 5, 2002, the convention was approved by the parliament, and a few months later, on August 26, 2002, the official ratification documents were delivered to the convention’s secretariat. This made the Czech Republic an active participant in the fight against POPs.

On May 17, 2024, the Stockholm Convention came into effect. One of the key figures in the Czech Republic’s journey with the Stockholm Convention is Ivan Holoubek. Reflecting on the early days of the convention, he says, ‘My personal connection with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (SC POPs) began in 1999 when I represented the Czech Republic in the team of experts preparing the convention. It continued until 2001 when I was a member of the Czech delegation during the signing of the Convention. Subsequently, I coordinated the European team during the initial POPs inventory. From 2001 to 2004, I led the preparation of the National Implementation Plan for the convention in the Czech Republic, making it the first country to have such a plan ready.”

Klára Wajdová from the Ministry of the Environment (MŽP) also remembers the ratification process well. She played a crucial role in guiding the implementation of the Stockholm Convention in the Czech Republic. "Ensuring the preparation of the signature of the Stockholm Convention on POPs for the Czech Republic in 2001 was my first important task when I started working at the Ministry of the Environment. I then worked on the ratification of the convention, co-created the statute of the National Center for POPs, administered its activities, and participated in conferences of the contracting parties for the Czech Republic until 2013. I am pleased that this process led to the establishment of the National Center for Toxic Substances, which plays a pivotal role in addressing various tasks at the national level. RECETOX has also become a Regional Center for supporting the implementation of the Stockholm Convention, building a strong reputation for the Czech Republic in monitoring chemical substances and their impact on the environment and health in both the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Most importantly, thanks to the Stockholm Convention, I have met outstanding personalities—scientists with determination, hearts in the right place, and a team spirit—who consistently help others achieve their goals. I hope this team remains committed to the Stockholm Convention for at least another 20 years, addressing the challenges ahead.”

The Stockholm Convention was established with the aim of limiting and gradually eliminating the production, use, and release of persistent organic pollutants. Initially, the convention covered 12 substances and their groups. As our understanding of the impact of these chemicals on the environment and human health expanded, the list of substances was gradually extended. At the fourth Conference of the Parties in Geneva in May 2009, an additional nine substances and their groups were added. During this period, the Czech Republic chaired the European Union for the first time, presenting a significant challenge for hundreds of officials and politicians. This was also the case for Alexandra Novotná from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

“During the May 2009 Conference of the Parties, the Czech Republic chaired the EU for the first time. The inclusion of nine substances in the convention’s annexes was proposed. Since the conference was not yet paperless, we churned out piles of printed papers for all participants from the EU every day. Progress in negotiations was slow; in contact groups, we spent literal days and nights, often concluding around 3 a.m. As the conference neared its end, the final plenary negotiations dragged on, and many delegates had left or were about to leave. The atmosphere was tense. Attempts to expedite midnight negotiations by adjusting the air conditioning, turning lights on and off, led to a desperate speech by a representative from an African region: ‘What do you want from us? How are we supposed to decide? I’m cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, and I need to catch a flight!’ The conference ended well—all substances were approved, and negotiations concluded at 5:30 a.m. Finally, we headed to the hotel with our notes under our arms,’ recalls Novotná.

The addition of substances to the Stockholm Convention’s list continued. In April 2011, the 22nd substance (Endosulfan) was added, and in May 2013, the 23rd substance (Hexabromocyclododecane, HBCD) was included. The most recent updates to the list occurred in 2023. Thanks to dynamic development, adaptability to new scientific knowledge about substance risks, and technological progress in preparing safer alternatives, the convention now covers 34 substances.

Jan Dusík, recently appointed Deputy Director-General for Climate Action in the European Commission, highlights the role of the Stockholm Convention among the available international tools for chemical substances. "The Stockholm Convention is an essential part of international commitments to environmental protection, including those embraced by the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. Simultaneously, the Czech Republic actively contributes to both national implementation of the convention and the development of best practices on the global stage. This is evident through the active involvement of Czech representatives in the convention’s bodies and the selection of RECETOX as a regional center, assisting with technical implementation in various countries and collaborating with other global centers to achieve the convention’s goals and address issues related to persistent organic pollutants in the environment. Personally, I am pleased to have been part of some significant moments in the life of the Stockholm Convention in the Czech Republic. Looking ahead, I hope that the Czech footprint within the convention remains distinct, thanks to the dedicated individuals who contribute with personal commitment!”

Kateřina Šebková, who began working with the convention in 2005, emphasizes the practical benefits of the National Implementation Plan for the Czech Republic. "Even back then, I was intrigued by the fact that such a government document is essentially a cookbook but also a bit of an encyclopedia with a detective plot.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants remains a crucial global environmental treaty, aiming to protect human health and the environment from harmful effects caused by persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Signed on May 22-23, 2001, in Stockholm, Sweden, after years of negotiations under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the convention legally binds signatory countries to limit the production, use, and release of selected POPs. The Czech Republic has both signed and ratified the convention. Since its entry into force on May 17, 2004, the convention has been ratified by 185 countries worldwide and the European Union.

The convention initially covered 12 substances and their groups, including DDT, PCBs, and dioxins. Over time, additional substances were added, expanding the list to 30. The convention continues to be a vital tool in safeguarding our planet, and the Czech Republic actively contributes to its implementation. Experts from RECETOX play a significant role, exemplified by Katarína Řiháčková’s dedication. She represents Czech Republic in the POPRC committee, assessing candidate POPs substances for inclusion in the convention.

“The Stockholm Convention has been close to my heart ever since I first heard about it from Professor Ivan Holoubek during my Environmental Chemistry course and from Dr. Katka Šebková in Environmental Policy and Tools. The convention, as a tool for protecting the planet from POPs, the dedicated efforts of RECETOX experts, and the overall issue of POPs had a ‘wow’ effect on me and significantly influenced my career path. Today, I am a member of the POPRC, living my dream as part of the global community of POPs experts, contributing to the planet’s health protection.”

Similarly, Ondřej Mikeš, who delved into the topic of POPs early in his studies, shares his experience. "My first encounter with the Stockholm Convention occurred while choosing my field of study in chemistry at university. POPs were already part of my bachelor’s thesis in Environmental Chemistry at RECETOX, specifically focusing on the significant accumulation of these substances in fish—a key reason for monitoring them. Soon after, I shifted my focus to terrestrial environments, particularly plants and the potential pathways for POPs contamination and their transfer through the food chain to humans. During my doctoral studies in Denmark, we analyzed data for a highly cited article on POPs in plants, proposing a novel, less-modeled pathway for these substances from the air to plant roots."

From the many sentences above, it is evident how crucial a role RECETOX played in the implementation of the Stockholm Convention. Hundreds of hours of work, for example, stand behind the environmental database with an internet portal called the Global Monitoring Plan Data Warehouse (GMP DWH), which makes global data on the occurrence of POPs available to all users and serves as the main data repository for POPs for the Stockholm Convention. Jana Borůvková from RECETOX recalls its inception.

“During the period when data collection and report creation were underway as part of the first GMP campaign, we at RECETOX were intensively working on building the GENASIS environmental database, which was primarily intended to store data produced by our trace laboratory. Thanks to this experience with harmonizing diverse data, which allows their joint storage and subsequent joint processing and multiple uses, I was very disappointed with the state of the data collected during the first campaign. The data was traceable and publicly accessible, but it was not harmonized and was reusable only with great difficulty. In this context, I considered whether our database was flexible and universal enough to accommodate data from these unharmonized documents. It turned out that importing data sets into the GENASIS system was quite a trivial matter, but the big challenge was the harmonization of data and procedures used in reporting data by the provider. Therefore, for the second campaign, we proposed several rules that allowed the creation of time series at long-term used sampling sites, thereby monitoring the development of environmental pollution and its impact on human health. We are currently preparing the fourth campaign, and as part of the preparation of technical guidelines, we are specifying and thus unifying some other procedures used in data processing. This development pleases me greatly because I see that the data reported within the GMP are gradually becoming FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable.”

Over the past two decades since the Stockholm Convention’s inception, Czech experts from various organizations have made significant contributions. Their roles span international negotiations, long-term participation in expert groups, operation of monitoring networks across Europe and Africa, data processing, extensive training for over 1,000 participants, and analysis of thousands of samples from POPs monitoring in air, water, soil, human matrices, and biota. Additionally, Czech companies—such as Dekonta, Sita, and Aquatest—play a crucial role by cleaning contaminated sites and safely disposing of collected POPs. These efforts reflect the collaborative spirit between decision-makers, academia, and industry, as highlighted by Kateřina Šebková, Director of the Regional Center for Capacity Building and Technology Transfer for Central and Eastern Europe under the Stockholm Convention.

“When I first heard about the Stockholm Convention in 2004, I certainly didn’t expect it to accompany me throughout my entire career and continue to engage me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve experienced various impacts of POPs pollution from their production and use on our soils, waters, food, and health. We actively addressed these issues, sometimes achieving success quickly, while other times overcoming administrative, technical, or other obstacles. Nonetheless, we persistently reduce POPs burden in the Czech Republic. Our effective collaboration between decision-makers, science, and practice, both nationally and internationally, contributes to maintaining our expertise among the best.”

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