`Pesticides have more alarming effects than mere cancer`

  • 14/10/1995

What is the main area of work of the International Joint Commission (IJC) and the purpose behind its creation?
The International Joint Commission was created by a treaty between the United States and Canada, who agreed that neither country would pollute the waters on its own side of the lipe, in a way that might affect the health or injure property on the other side. Over the years, the commission has been asked to study those issues where one country or the other has felt that there has been a breach of the agreement. We had formed different study groups with equal number of Americans and Canadians for joint fact finding, where each person would come with an open mind, jointly research a problem, make a joint environmental assessment and arrive at a con- sensus judgement about whether or not pollu- tion has occurred, its extent, and the preventive measures.

How successful or effective has this move been over the years?
It's been very effective over the years, and especially in the cleaning up of the Great Lakes. In the '60s, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were declared to be dead. Large areas, like Buffalo State USA, were dumping enormous amounts of untreated sewage into the lakes and literally killing their productivity. The commission's study found that the countries could no longer continue to do that. The 2 countries agreed to invest billions of dollars in the construction of treatment plants to treat the sewage that was going into the lakes.

Were the local people involved in this cleaning up act?
Well, one of the reasons why it was such a successful effort is that pollution from human waste is the kind you can see, you can smell, you can taste... it kills the fish, and you cannot swim in the water and neither can you drink it and so it was easy for people to rise up and demand that this kind of (cleaning) work be done.

Did you encounter any problems while working in Canada? How did you mobilise the people there?
What we have been able to do is that when people are willing, we ask government agencies if we can use their citizens to work on a study that we are conducting. When they come to us we tell them that they are not working as any agency's representative, but because they as individuals possess skills that we need for the studies. It is clear that they should be willing to say things that they might not say, or might not agree to, if they were there as representatives of a country or an organisation.

Has the commission resolved any significant issue between the US and Canada?
Yes, it has resolved a number of very signif - icant issues. It was the work of the commission and the investments of the 2 governments that resulted in the cleaning up of the Great Lakes from what we call the conventional pollutants. This serves as a model for other efforts in the world. And there are a number of other issues along the boundary that have been resolved amicably between the 2 countries.

What kind of work have you done regarding human health and toxic substances in the environment?
We have been mostly involved with the Great Lakes. And we are realising more and more that the issue of human health and toxics is only partly centred around the issue of can- cer. For many years in the us and Canada, cancer was seen as the end point of the result of human exposure to toxic substances. And so, most of the things that have been done to con- trol the poisons has been while trying to understand the type of cancer a particular toxic chemical will cause over a period of time.But what we are finding now is that there are a lot of other problems, besides cancer, that in the end will be more serious for human beings. I know that this is difficult to imagine. But these include developmental effects, behav- iourial effects, reduction in IQ, or even sexual problems. We are now seeing in the Great Lakes a large number of animal species, birds, fish and even some small mammals that never reach sexual maturity. Findings show that toxic chemicals have very subtle effects on the endocrine system, which controls sexual devel- opment. There are findings about males of the species being feminised and the females being masculanised.

This is very frightening, and there is increasing evidence, for example, that the 50 per cent reduction in sperm count and sub- stantial increase in sperm mortality among males globally, is likely the result of increasing exposure to persistent toxic substances, proba- bly starting with the foetus in the womb. There is also mounting evidence that very subtle impairments caused by exposure to these sub- stance is increasing with each generation. And there are dangers to population levels of certain species as a result of exposure to certain toxic substances, and it is not inconceivable to think that humans may find themselves in that posi- tion one day.

Now that you have identified the problems, what is the next step?
We have recommended to the United ~tates and the Canadian governments that they should bring about a total ban on the produc- tion, use and even storage of certain persistent toxic substances; and that they should try for an international agreement to bring about an end to the production of such substances.

Our third recommendation is a very con- troversial one, which is to end, within a speci- fied time, the use of chlorine as a feedstock for industrial chemicals. We have found that many of the chemicals affecting the ecosystem and human health result from chlorinated organics fmding their way into the environment.

There has been a lot of talk about persistent organic compounds, used in the tropical world, being carried all the way to the Arctic lakes and so on, and then through biomagnification, increasing the threat to human beings. There has been a recent ban on fishing in one of the Canadian lakes. So, if we are using DDT in India or Central America, it evaporates into the atmosphere and is carried all the way up...
What happens is that DDT and a compound called Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) find there way into the Polar region. This is one of the reasons, for example, that most of the Scandinavian countries are now in the forefront of the national efforts to bring about some sort of a ban in the use of these chemicals. One of the major issues that the global community will have to deal with is how, they will bring about an end to the use of these chemicals. Also, how will they come up with alternative strategies and dependable methods for developing countries, particularly the poorer tropical countries, to be able to treat malarial areas and protect populations against these diseases.

But is there much scientific evidence to support this transfer from the tropical regions to the Arctic regions?
There is no scientific doubt that this kind of transfer is taking place. There is also no longer much doubt about the harmful effects of these substances. Well, there are probably still some questions that can never be completely resolved, and this is where industries are very good in manipulating science. Industry always argues that science has not proven that a certain chemical causes harm. Of course, that is a very cynical misuse of science, because science does not prove anything. The object of science is to disprove hypothesis, not to prove anything. And so to use science to suggest that something needs to be proven is an intentional and misleading trick to try to stop any progress towards banning any kind of production of such chemicals. So, on the effects on humans, unless you are to use humans in experiments, which for ethical reasons you cannot, you are probably never going to have absolute proof that any harm is being caused.

What would you recommend for the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in these regions?
I would recommend that a number of NGOs -ideally they should be from 3 or 4 different nations in these regions -to think about sub- mitting a joint proposal to the United Nations Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, and also to some American private founda- tions, for the development of an information clearing house. I think that might have some real attraction for them. And if it doesn't, you have lost nothing. It would be an initial effort to test the willingness of NGOS to really do something meaningful, in a concrete way, to strengthen the capacities of locally based NGOs. I think that this would be an ide,al exercise.