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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Treaty, a Few Toxic Fish and a Big Stink

ST. PETERSBURG — Russia has outraged environmentalists by refusing to sign an international treaty that takes aim at so-called persistent organic pollutants, which can cause cancer and pose a particular danger to people who live near the Baltic Sea.

Representatives of more than 120 countries, including Russia, gathered last week in Stockholm to begin signing the treaty, which had been two years in the making.

The treaty obliges signatories to work toward eliminating persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs, a large and varied group of man-made chemicals. Some are the unwanted byproducts of waste incineration or industrial processes. POPs also include pesticides such as DDT and industrial chemicals such as PCBs.

By the end of the two-day conference, 91 countries had signed the treaty. Canada, the first country to sign, has already ratified it, as has the United States. Russia was among those that did not.

Ivan Blokov, director of Greenpeace Russia, said the Russian delegation made "a scandalous decision, bringing shame on the Russian nation." He said the government's decision was based on money. "The government does not want to spend the money necessary to clean itself up — it's that simple," Blokov said in a telephone interview.

In not signing, Russia backtracked from its stated position in December, when it said it would sign the treaty.

The Russian delegation, according to a conference press release, said Russia was committed to signing the agreement "in the near future, with financial and technical assistance."

The Natural Resources Ministry said it was inappropriate to accuse Russia of refusing to sign. Natalya Karpova, chief expert at the ministry's department of international cooperation and a member of the Russian delegation in Stockholm, said the delegation did not sign the convention last week because the issue had not been coordinated with all the relevant governmental agencies in time.

"The convention is open for signing until May 21, 2002, and we hope to sign it within months," Karpova said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

She said an evaluation had shown that the terms of the convention were feasible for Russia. The government estimates it would have to spend $80 million to $180 million over 25 years to clean up the chemical waste, she said.

Karpova dismissed claims made by some environmentalists that Russia was hesitating in an attempt to bargain for Western money. "As far as I know only signatories of the convention can count on getting some funding from the international environmental bodies, so refusing to sign is obviously not the way to get the financial aid," she said.

Despite Russia's decision, environmentalists were upbeat about the treaty, which has roots in the 1974 Helsinki Convention to protect the Baltic Sea.

"Greenpeace welcomes the treaty and expects all non-signatories to sign up, with the exception of Russia, whose position is as yet uncertain," said Matilda Bradshaw, spokeswoman for Greenpeace International, by telephone from Amsterdam. "We see that the commitment to POPs elimination is there, but to avoid the POPs crisis in the Baltic, it is vital that Russia signs the treaty sooner rather than later."

The Russian foot-dragging comes at a time when a clearer, and more morbid, picture of of the health hazards associated with POPs is emerging.

A report published by Greenpeace International in Amsterdam last month outlines the dangers that 50 years of heavy industry have brought to the Baltics, and calls Russia — one of the biggest polluters — out on the carpet for its disinterest in accepting responsibility.

POPs are especially dangerous because they do not break down easily in the environment and are capable of traveling great distances through the air and water. They accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans, becoming more concentrated as they move higher up the food chain.

While POPs are a global problem, it was in the Baltic in the 1970s that scientists first realized to what degree POP pollution had become a threat to human and animal health.

The Baltic Sea, fed by more than 200 rivers, is a unique marine environment because its water lacks the salinity needed for many saltwater fish and at the same time is too salty for freshwater fish. The Baltic's ecosystem is more vulnerable to environmental stress and thus it acts as an early warning system for other seas.

The Greenpeace report documents adverse health effects caused by consumption of fish, meat and dairy products contaminated with POPs, including high rates of breast, cervical, stomach and skin cancer. Studies have shown reduced birth weight in children of mothers who eat Baltic fish as well as lower IQs and immune system deficiencies.

The report warns that exposure to POPs is related to location, and that the entire population along the Baltic coast — some 90 million people, including the inhabitants of St. Petersburg — are at risk from health threats that are still far from being fully understood.

The situation has become so worrying over the last 10 years that the Swedish and Finnish governments have issued health warnings about the consumption of fish from the Baltic. But although the same levels of toxicity exist in the Gulf of Finland, the Russian government has issued no such health warnings.

Alexei Kisilyov, a toxics expert for Greenpeace Russia based in Moscow, said there are a number of "hot spots" in and around St. Petersburg.

"In St. Petersburg, the problem is pronounced — cows graze and children play right next to waste incinerators and nobody wants to admit there is a problem," he said.

Last month, a group of Greenpeace activists chained themselves to a waste incineration plant on Bely Island near St. Petersburg, which they say has a poor air filtration system and spits out cancer-causing dioxins.

Dioxins, which are a POP, are formed when municipal and industrial waste is burned and when chemicals containing chlorine are manufactured. The World Health Organization upgraded dioxin from a "probable" to a "known" human carcinogen in 1997.

Many of the POPS are pesticides, including DDT, which was once widely used to control insects on agricultural crops and insects that carry diseases such as malaria and typhus. It is banned in most countries, including Russia.

PCBs are used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical equipment. They are no longer manufactured anywhere in the world but continue to persist in the environment. In Russia, production was stopped just in recent years and large quantities of PCBs remain to be disposed of.