Last week the 127 nations participating in the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty on limiting the use of dangerous and persistent pollutants, agreed to phase out the use of the toxic pesticide endosulfan by 2017. Endosulfan, which is used to control pest insects on crops like cotton and coffee, has been linked to health problems like neurological damage, endocrine disruption, and birth defects in humans. Exposure to large amounts of endosulfan can result in seizures, unconsciousness and death. Environmental and health organizations like the Pesticide Action Network hailed the global phase-out of endosulfan as a major victory.
Starting next year, endosulfan’s uses will be limited in countries that participate in the Stockholm Convention. Exceptions will be made for application on certain crops, until it is phased out completely in 2017. The United States, one of the few major economies and users of endosulfan that has not ratified the Stockholm Convention, will not be bound by the international agreement. However the US already has plans to phase out endosulfan, with the Environmental Protection Agency announcing last year that the pesticide’s use in the US will end by 2016. Around eighty other countries had also announced bans on endosulfan before last week.
Still, an international agreement to eliminate endosulfan didn’t come easily. The idea was at first strongly opposed by India, which is one of the biggest users of the pesticide and manufactures about half of the endosulfan produced on the planet. Endosulfan in India is produced by the government-owned company Hindustan Insecticides Ltd. The Indian government was persuaded to sign onto the endosulfan phase-out only after temporary exemptions for use on certain crops were added.
Endosulfan is an organochlorine, meaning it belongs to the same group of chemicals as the infamous DDT. Until now it has been one of the few organochlorines still used in the United States and large parts of the rest of the world. In fact it has been used in such large quantities that it has spread throughout the atmosphere and across the planet, finding its way into the air we breathe and the water we drink. Endosulfan can be found at varying concentrations even in the Arctic and other parts of the world far away from where it is actually used.
Endosulfan shares many traits in common with DDT, including the ability to persist for long periods of time in the environment and to accumulate in the bodies of animals as it moves up the food chain. Endosulfan has been blamed with contributing to declining populations of fish, amphibians, and other wildlife. The impacts on people are especially severe in the developing world, where farmers who lack access to protective equipment spray their fields with the deadly chemical.
Groups like the Pesticide Action Network have fought to end the use of endosulfan for years, but only recently have they come close to victory. Last year’s announcement that the United States would phase out endosulfan was a major milestone, as was a similar decision on the part of the Brazilian government to end the pesticide’s use. These victories at the national level helped build the momentum needed for a global phase-out of endosulfan. When participants in the Stockholm Convention met last month, they took up the issue amidst widespread support for a ban. It was unclear until late in the process whether India would consent to any kind of phase-out, but concessions made at the request of the Indian government were enough to eventually get the country on board.
It is now up to countries around the world to follow through on their commitments to ending the use of endosulfan. If this is done successfully, the next six years will see this hazardous and pervasive chemical relegated to the history bin.
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