20 years of POPs regulation
Persistent organic pollutants are chemical substances that are harmful to organisms and the environment. These substances remain in the environment for a very long time and bioaccumulate in living organisms across the food chain, and are transported over long distances in the air and water. The vast majority of these chemicals had been produced and used, and in some cases still are, as pesticides and industrial chemicals. However, POPs also include substances that no one intentionally produces, but which are generated, for example, in combustion processes in the road transport, by incineration of municipal waste or they form as undesirable by-products of chemical production. POPs can be individual chemicals but also mixtures of chemicals and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) are an important representative.
The most notorious substance from the Stockholm Convention is undoubtedly the insecticide dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), part of the first set of substances included in the Stockholm Convention destined for elimination or restriction of production and use. DDT use has been ruled out with one exemption - the control of mosquitoes to prevent malaria. If looking at more recently listed POPs, we undoubtedly need to mention a group of industrial POPs that contain fluorine, the so-called perfluorinated substances. They are present in every step of our life. We can find them, for example, in Teflon dishes in our kitchen, waxes for cross-country skis or in waterproof outdoor sportswear. Perfluorinated substances, on one hand, promote electroplating or wetting and water resistance, on the other hand, they accumulate in watercourses in the environment and in the blood and muscle tissues of animals, have a negative effect on the liver and digestive system. Because of the absence of natural decomposition, they are probably the biggest current challenge for the implementation of the Stockholm Convention.
Functional interface for the transfer of scientific knowledge into politics
So has the Stockholm Convention proved successful in being an instrument for international cooperation in the POPs management leading to improvements of the environment and health protection? Had we consider a success to be able to respond, on the basis of scientific evidence, to the very dynamic environment for the production of chemicals and to expand the number of substances in the Convention, then clearly yes. In order to assess potentially hazardous substances, the production and use of which should be restricted or even banned, a Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) has been set up to assess risks and address the expected socio-economic impacts of banning a given substance. Substance evaluation is comprehensive and very thorough, also because a restriction of a particular substance has a number of consequences. The work of POPRC has had a significant impact on raising awareness of POPs and has been instrumental to the ever-increasing quantity of substances in the Convention from 12 to 30. In addition, as stated in the Global Report on the Effectiveness Evaluation of the Stockholm Convention (2017), the number of scientific articles on POPs has increased significantly due to the adoption of the Stockholm Convention.
Another possible approach to judging the meaning and functioning of the Convention is the composition and number of states that have ratified the Convention. As of April 2021, 184 states ratified the Stockholm Convention. However, this almost worldwide coverage is devalued by the non-participation of the United States which signed the Convention in 2001 and voluntarily contribute to the Convention but have not yet ratified nor accepted all commitments and mandatory implementation of concrete steps. In this respect, the United States are one of the countries that apply the precautionary principle, which is the cornerstone of the Convention, differently from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the Stockholm Convention remains a global instrument that has a significant impact on individual parties - states. The Parties to the Convention must develop and regularly update so-called National Implementation Plans (NIP), through which they implement their obligations under the Convention and set national priorities and a timetable for achieving them.
National centre and importance of the Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, the NIP is being implemented with the help of the National Centre for Toxic Compounds. This centre is a part of the RECETOX, Faculty of Science at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic and, at the same time, performs the role of the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre for Capacity Building and the Transfer of Technology in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Activities of the National Centre are managed by an inter-ministerial body, Council of the National Centre for Toxic Compounds, which evaluates the implementation of the NIP and proposes further steps including defining the research support.
But let's stay in the Czech Republic for a moment. Thanks to the high quality of our science and top experts at universities, research institutes, but also in the ministries themselves, the country has made an indelible mark in the history of the Stockholm Convention and we should be rightfully proud of it. Many of our representatives, namely Karel Bláha from the Ministry of the Environment (MoE), who chaired two-week-long global meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention in 2007 and 2011; Kateřina Šebková, a former longtime member of the Convention´s bureau or other representatives of the Czech Republic being esteemed or founding members in expert bodies Jana Klánová, Ivan Holoubek or Pavel Čupr, played an important role in the "life" of the convention.
In addition, one of the highlights of the Czech Republic's involvement in the Stockholm Convention is the development and operation of the electronic platform supporting the Global Monitoring Plan and Effectiveness Evaluation of the Stockholm Convention (www.pops-gmp.org) supporting the decision making and recommending further developments. The RECETOX has also carried out numerous capacity building and training activities over the last 17 years, such as the International Summer School on substances related to the Stockholm Convention, enrolled by more than 800 experts from around the world. The RECETOX also shares its expertise in chemicals management at the European level - we have become a member of the High-Level Round Table on the EU Chemical Strategy and together with 32 entities representing industry, economic associations, NGOs, scientific societies, research institutions, universities and international organizations (OECD, WHO and UNEP) participate in debates on the implementation of the strategy and chemical management. You can find out about the first round table meeting on the RECETOX website.
Europe and the world are pulling together
The Stockholm Convention and its scope are still very topical and require considerable attention. The existing European Union strategies, such as the Green Deal or the just-published Zero Pollution Action Plan, demonstrate that the production and use of chemicals is one of the biggest regulatory challenges of this century. The EU's Sustainable Chemicals Strategy reflects this fact and emphasizes the importance of, among other things, global instruments to reduce the negative impacts of chemicals on the environment and health. A concrete example is the EU's efforts to remove the already mentioned perfluorinated substances from the environment, based on scientific knowledge from the Convention, which is absolutely essential for further steps in this field.
Kateřina Šebková, Director of the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre, adds: "If we were to answer the question posed in the introduction to the article, we can undoubtedly state that the Stockholm Convention has a significant global positive impact on eliminating or reducing production and use of POPs and increased our risk assessment and management capacities and thus increases the health and environmental protection."
 Report on the effectiveness of the Stockholm Convention, 2017, p. 117.