Dr Roger Bate, is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is also a researcher at Wolfson College, Cambridge University, UK. He has made regular visits to Johannesburg, where he has been working in the field of Malaria control.
The conclusion of the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Conference held by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Johannesburg in December 2000, was heralded as a great success. A BBC researcher even called me up a few days after the conference and pleaded for me to say something different. Everyone appeared to be happy with the treaty. Undoubtedly, it was a major achievement for the delegates, and especially the indefatigable chairman, John Buccini. Even if agreement could only be reached once the simultaneous translators walked out in exhaustion at 5am, which meant that discussion were only held in English - and many of the delegates' English was extremely poor. But assuming they understood what they agreed to, will the treaty really help developing countries such as South Africa?
According to the numerous green groups represented at the conference, POPs are 'some of the world's most dangerous chemicals - banning them will be a significant step towards a toxic-free future'. POPs are stored in the body fat of humans and animals and have been linked (by the greens, although few thorough scientific studies) to numerous harmful biological effects, including cancer. Most POPs do indeed cause cancer in rats when fed huge doses, but then, according to Bruce Ames, Professor of Biochemistry at Berkeley, University of California in USA, 'about half of all chemicals ever tested cause cancer, including natural toxins, such as are found in potatoes, nutmeg and coffee'.
On balance there are, in most instances - DDT is an exception - better alternatives to POPs, which is why most POPs were dropped by business as new technologies came on line, even before POPs were banned in the developed world. But while less polluting technologies often exist, the South cannot afford them. And more importantly, even if the South can afford such technologies, they probably should not waste so much of their meagre resources on what is just one input to production. Better overall allocations of labour, land, transportation, chemicals and other inputs probably exist. How many women would buy a $800 pair of shoes, when they only had $1000 Rand to buy an entire outfit including suit, hat, handbag, lingerie and shoes (of course such women may exist, but they probably shouldn't be running an economy).
Most media attention has focused on DDT, the POP most environmentalists love to hate. Although harmful to wildlife in high doses it has saved millions from malaria and other fatal diseases. Because the trade-off (possible harm to wildlife versus deaths of thousands of children) is so obvious, DDT remains to be used today. But there are other POPs that developing countries should keep hold of until they can sensibly afford the alternatives. Two that are worthy of note are PCBs, and dioxins.
Dioxins occur from all combustion processes of chlorine-containing organic matter at temperatures of less than 1000°C. In other words, dioxins are produced by hospital incinerators, home cooking and forest fires.
To eliminate dioxins from the gases of hospital incinerators for example, the burning temperature needs to be some 2500°C, and such an incinerator is considerably more costly than one burning at 1000°C. For developing countries this expense is pointless. According to Dr Paolo Mocarelli, of Milan University Hospital, the worst dioxin spill in history was at Seveso in Italy in 1976. Those most exposed developed acne-like symptoms, but no one died, then or after. So even at Seveso the cost was relatively slight. Must developing countries spend millions to install high temperature incinerators everywhere to eliminate minute dioxin traces, which are produced naturally anyway?
PCBs, which cool large transformers, are cheaper and usually better than the alternatives. Again the promoters of the treaty claim that they are incredibly dangerous, sufficiently so to ban them from all transformers. But like dioxins are not harmful in the concentrations to which people are generally exposed, and the alternatives have environmental and public health downsides as well.
The developing world needs transformers; electricity saves lives, and advances the economic development of millions. Should we slow developing world electrification because some people believe that minute amounts of PCBs could be potentially harmful in the long run?
Unfortunately the answers to these questions are never considered from a Southern perspective. The North has banned these chemicals, and doesn't want to be exposed to tiny quantities of POPs produced in the South, in case there is a risk. So to ensure the treaty was agreed, they have blown out of all proportion the dangers that POPs pose thousands of miles from where they are used - fashioning this into a global issue In this way they made the South agree to reduce, and eventually eliminate, use. But now the North have the agreement how much help will they provide?
It will be easy for them in future to point to the truth, which is that POPs pose some problems locally or nationally, and especially to workers exposed to high doses. But there is little problem internationally, and hence there is no reason for massive international wealth transfers from North to South.
POPs may be dangerous, and the alternatives better, but the North phased them out slowly over time. The South is being asked to rush to alternatives, which will harm Southern development. The Southern delegates should have rejected the treaty, or demanded massive concrete financial compensation - they did neither.
A version of this article was originally published in The Pretoria News.