"Persistent Organic Pollutants in Asia: An Ongoing Disaster" - Greenpeace

Press release - November 17, 1998
Southeast Asia faces a frightening scenario of historic, current and potential poisoning by the most dangerous variety of persistent poisons, according to an investigative report released by international environmental group Greenpeace. The report titled "Toxic Legacies; Poisoned Futures: Persistent Organic Pollutants in Asia" reveals a story of potentially widespread contamination caused by irresponsible corporate behavior and dirty military practices in the region by certain countries particularly the United States.

Southeast Asia faces a frightening scenario of historic, current and potential poisoning by the most dangerous variety of persistent poisons, according to an investigative report released by international environmental group Greenpeace. The report titled "Toxic Legacies; Poisoned Futures: Persistent Organic Pollutants in Asia" reveals a story of potentially widespread contamination caused by irresponsible corporate behavior and dirty military practices in the region by certain countries particularly the United States.

"Southeast Asia is poised to take on the mantle of being the most polluted area in the planet with the proliferation of various toxic hotspots and disasters in the region. The toxic overload facing countries in Southeast Asia is further compounded by the uncontrolled expansion of dirty poison producing technologies in the region," according to Von Hernandez, Greenpeace campaigner for Southeast Asia.

Focusing on a class of poisonous chemicals called Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs, which are now targeted for elimination by international negotiations under the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Greenpeace investigations conducted between April and August 1998 in seven Asian countries, including the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam revealed that:

§ Electricity generating and power distributing agencies in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand are stuck with the problem of disposing stocks of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs used in old generation transformers and capacitors. Strapped for funds and lacking in technical capacity to safely deal with this problem, these power generating entities like the Philippines' National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) store their old transformers together with their PCB waste in haphazard and unsatisfactory conditions posing serious health risks to workers and communities.

§ Entire districts in Southern Vietnam have been converted into reservoirs of the life-threatening dioxin due to war-time herbicide spraying and defoliation operations by the US military during the Vietnam war. It is estimated that approximately 42 million liters of the dioxin tainted Agent Orange have been released in Vietnam under the US military's Operation Ranch Hand which destroyed an estimated 14% of South Vietnam's forests. More than two decades after the war, the effects of dioxin contamination on war veterans, their offspring, and exposed civilians continue to manifest. Several epidemiological studies show that exposed human populations exhibit higher rates of cancer, abnormalities during pregnancies (e.g. miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects), and other human health complications.

§ The US military has also left behind a lethal legacy of long-term poisoning in its former military bases in the Philippines, Clark and Subic, with several studies pointing to severe POPs contamination of certain areas within and around the former bases. A Philippine commissioned environmental baseline study of Clark for example found high levels of the persistent poison dieldrin in several operational wells inside Clark, which could suggest extensive groundwater contamination inside and outside the former military base. High levels of PCBs were also found in former power stations and plants in both Subic and Clark. One report suggested the presence of dioxins in Subic as a consequence of the US military's practice of routinely incinerating hazardous waste inside the former naval facility.

§ Asia faces the prospect of unmanageable toxics pollution with the unmitigated expansion of POPs producing technologies and processes in the region, such as incinerators, chlorine bleaching processes in pulp and paper production, and PVC manufacturing. Over the last three years, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand as well as other countries in Southeast Asia are witnessing a rapid increase in the number of proposed and installed incinerators for medical, municipal, and hazardous waste. Incinerators are known to be primary sources of dioxins which the US EPA considers to be 200,000 times more lethal than DDT.

POPs are a class of synthetic toxic chemicals that can cause severe and long-term effects on wildlife, ecosystems and human health. POPs have been implicated in the rising incidence of certain cancers (e.g. breast, prostate, endometriosis, etc.), reproductive deficits such as infertility and sex linked disorders, declining sperm counts, fetal malformations, neurobehavioral impairment, and immune system dysfunction. Because of major threats to human health, the UNEP has shortlisted an initial twelve substances for elimination which include organochlorine pesticides (DDT, chlordane, mirex, hexachlorobenzene, endrin, aldrin, toxaphene, heptachlor), industrial chemicals like the cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and the super-toxic dioxins and furans which are unintentional by-products of certain industrial processes.

In line with the emerging requirements of the UNEP POP's process, Greenpeace also urges governments in the region to take action now by inventorying all sources of POPs in their countries and preventing the expansion of POPs producing technologies such as incinerators, PVC manufacturing, pesticide production facilities, and pulp and paper mills using chlorine bleaching processes.

"It is lamentable that while governments in the region are still grappling for ways to deal with their stockpiles of PCBs and the decontamination of toxic hotspots in their countries, the same governments are now entertaining the idea of setting -up dirty and discredited technologies which are known sources of dangerous poisons. This schizophrenic approach to pollution could only lead to an endless cycle of poisoning whose unwitting and eventual victims are communities and future generations," said Hernandez.

"Governments in the region have a responsibility to take action now, but the burden must eventually fall on polluters like the US military, and not on the citizens who for a long time have endured the consequences of toxics pollution," added Hernandez.

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