However environmentally permissive a Republican-controlled U.S. may be, other parts of the world are pioneering attitudes, technologies, and laws that could carry us safely through the 21st century. As this week’s happy example, I offer the new global agreement on POPs, plus Sweden’s even better policy on the same topic.

All-natural breast milk — now fortified with POPs!

Photo: Art Wolfe, Inc.

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POPs is the hot new acronym for persistent organic pollutants. These chemicals are immediately toxic or cause cancer or reproductive difficulties or birth defects (or all of the above) and are almost immortal in the environment. They are human-made, new to the planet. Few life forms know how to break them down. Furthermore most POPs contain strong chlorine-carbon bonds that tend to make them stable even in cold, heat, and sunlight. That stability renders them handy for industry and real hard to clean out of ecosystems.

The first global agreement on POPs was successfully negotiated earlier this month in Johannesburg. After five years of preparation and seven days of word-by-word wrangling, delegates from 122 nations agreed on a document that will, when ratified, impose worldwide bans or controls on a “dirty dozen” POPs. They include nine pesticides (aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene), plus three chemical families called PCBs, dioxins, and furans.

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Most of these chemicals are already banned in industrial nations. Some of those nations, including the U.S., still make them and export them to developing countries. Doing so is stupid, because POPs come back to haunt us. They are global travelers, drifting through air and water, found as readily in the Arctic or on imported coffee as in Hudson River bottom mud. The average American’s body is likely to contain at least 500 human-made chemicals, with the highest amounts being DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) and PCBs — though their manufacture has been banned in the U.S. for decades.

POPs tend to be more soluble in fat than in water, so once they are eaten, say by a minnow snapping up a POP-contaminated bit of plankton, they are stored in fat. The minnow carries nearly all the POPs it has ever encountered. A larger fish accumulates the POPs from all the minnows it eats. And so on. Whatever eats the biggest fish — an eagle or polar bear or seal or person — can get a POP dose hundreds of thousands of times more concentrated than the water in which that fish swam.

So eagles around the Great Lakes still have trouble reproducing. North Sea seals with high body loads of PCBs have compromised immune systems that can’t fight off common infections. Female polar bears are found with male reproductive organs that render them sterile. Breast milk in India and Zimbabwe gives babies on average six times the acceptable daily intake of DDE. Around the world women who have nursed are less likely to develop breast cancer; one possible reason is that they have downloaded part of their body load of POPs to their infants.

Clearly time to do something. Decades past time, actually. Our world is full of POPs, many more than the dirty dozen covered by the new global agreement. More than 50,000 synthetic organic chemicals are in regular use, most of which have never been properly tested for their health impacts, environmental lifetimes, and tendencies to bioaccumulate. Roughly a thousand new chemicals enter industrial production every year. The barn door has been open far too long. Closing it on 12 horses out of thousands is a start, but only a small one.

Sweden is taking the next step. Its prime minister is about to submit to a willing parliament a law banning from commerce any substance (organic or inorganic — including the lead in Sweden’s famed leaded crystal) that is persistent and bioaccumulates. Industry will be given five years to test, at its own expense, the 2,500 chemicals it uses in quantities over 1000 tons per year. (Testing for health effects, which is time-consuming, expensive, and often inconclusive, is not required — only testing for persistence and bioaccumulation, which in combination is sufficient to generate a ban.) By 2010, all industrial chemicals must be tested.

For any new chemical the burden of proof in Sweden will be shifted to industry to show that it’s safe, rather than to the public to prove, often the hard way, that it’s harmful. While the jury is out, the chemical cannot be used. That is the reverse of the policy in the U.S. (and other countries), where a chemical is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The amazing part of this story is the grown-up behavior of Swedish companies. The policy was shaped by a panel of experts from government, academia, and industry led by the Bayer chemical company. Swedish industry already has pooled resources for the necessary testing. Orrefors Kosta Boda, the glass company that can see coming the end of the legal use of lead, is calmly developing ways to make scintillating glass with barium instead.

Meanwhile, at Johannesburg Clinton-Gore negotiators opposed expanding the POPs list beyond the dirty dozen. Everyone knew that a Republican-dominated Congress would never ratify the treaty anyway. The Bush-Cheney administration is expected to listen only to the short-sighted side of the chemical industry.

It’s a good thing others aren’t waiting around for us.