The PCBs elimination network: the information exchange platform created for the risk reduction of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

By Andrea Warmuth, Kei Ohno

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and PCBs

The Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is a multilateral environmental agreement aimed at eliminating the intentional production and use and unintentional releases of POPs. POPs are chemicals characterised by their persistence, bioaccumulation, potential for long-range environmental transport and adverse effects on humans and wildlife. To protect human health and the environment from such chemicals, the Convention was adopted by the international community and entered into force in May 2004.[1, 2] As of March 2012, there were 176 Parties to the Convention.

The Convention currently lists 22 chemicals. Among them are industrial chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); pesticides, such as DDT and endosulfan; and unintentionally released chemicals such as dioxins and furans.

PCBs were used heavily since the 1930s as dielectric fluids in capacitors and transformers and for other applications such as flame retardants, ink solvents and plasticisers. Breivik et al estimated that around 1,325,810 tons of PCBs were produced between 1929 and 1993.[3] In the 1970s, their adverse effects on the immune system, liver, skin, reproductive system, gastrointestinal tract and thyroid gland became prominent and their use was phased out. Solomon and Huddle, Silverstone et al, Govarts et al and McAuliffe et al reported recent studies on the toxic effects of PCBs.[4-7] Today, PCBs remain common contaminants of animal and human food chains, generally at low concentrations, and diet remains one of the main sources of exposure of the general population.[8]

The Stockholm Convention prohibits any new production and use of PCBs. The parties to the Convention are required to eliminate the use of PCBs in existing equipment by 2025 and ensure environmentally sound waste management of them by 2028.

Innovative approach towards enhanced stakeholders’ cooperation for the elimination of PCBs

According to the secretariat’s estimate in 2008, the global quantity of PCBs amounted to 2.9 million tonnes.[9] Despite many countries’ efforts in establishing PCB inventories, eliminating old transformers and ensuring environmentally sound disposal of PCBs, much more work is still required in large parts of the world with support of national, regional and international donors and agencies. Otherwise, severe adverse effects on human health and the environment may continue.

In order to provide incentives for cost-effective actions towards eliminating PCBs, the establishment of a global network of PCB stakeholders, the “PCBs Elimination Network (PEN)”, was endorsed by the Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention in 2009.[10]

The activities of the PCBs Elimination Network (PEN)

The PEN is an information exchange established to promote a cost-effective approach for the environmentally sound management of PCBs. As an equal partnership for stakeholders from different sectors, for example PCB holders, treatment or maintenance companies, governments, non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations, academic and technical experts and potential donors, PEN facilitates the exchange of experience by its members, cooperation and access to knowledge and expertise on how to tackle PCBs. The Network is open to participation by all stakeholders including individuals and organisations that fill in the application form and send it to the PEN secretary. PEN thus offers members expertise and support from different levels, such as local governmental agencies, intergovernmental organisations or grassroots organisations.

Since its establishment, information and lessons learnt about the environmentally sound management of PCBs have been exchanged through the website, newsletters, publications, and face-to-face meetings.

One tool used is a social networking website called “POPsSocial”, created for the exchange of information on POPs. POPsSocial allows its members to set up their own profile and provide information through various means such as forums and blogs. A special group for PEN has been formed and more than 128 PEN members have registered and are interacting on POPsSocial.

Another tool of PEN is the “PEN magazine”. It is a 120-page magazine comprising articles about PCB management contributed by PEN members. The first issue was about PCB inventories. It featured a step-by-step approach for establishing inventories, regional overviews and national experiences on PCB inventories, and updates on relevant projects. The magazine was published in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. [11]

Capacity building on PCBs

Several guidelines on environmentally sound management of PCBs have been produced over the years for capacity building. To consolidate such guidelines and update the information, PEN members are developing two new guidance documents: one on inventories of PCBs prescribing a standardised inventory procedure and another, on maintenance, handling and interim storage of equipment containing PCBs. The guidance built on existing guidelines and comprised lessons learnt and practical applications. They will remain as living documents and will be continuously reviewed and updated by PEN members.

Awareness raising and training materials are also being developed by PEN members. Recently, for instance, material on PCBs in open applications has been published. (Some examples of PCBs in open applications are paintings, anti-corrosive coatings, pesticide formulations, flame retardants, caulking and flooring materials.) Those guidance and training materials have been used in several capacity-building activities such as workshops and webinars.

Regional project developed through the network

One of the main holders of PCB equipment is the energy production and distribution sector, where accidental cross-contamination of PCB-free transformers is prone to lead to further PCB contamination.

A regional project was developed in the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), a common electricity grid in the Southern African Development Community. The project strengthened the capacity of SAPP to identify contamination of transformer oil to prevent PCB cross-contamination by sharing information and technology, using the expertise identified and funds raised through PEN.

Guidelines and training materials were developed and translated into French and Portuguese. A technical training course was organised in Johannesburg in 2011, gathering technical staff and government representatives from the region. Using the same materials, several mini-workshops were held at local level for utility managers of SAPP.

Providing incentives for successful PCB management

The PEN awards were established in 2011 to illustrate examples of tackling the challenges posed by PCBs. Taking place every 2 years, the awards have given recognition to governments, companies and individuals that have provided an outstanding contribution towards the environmentally sound management of PCBs.

Looking towards the future

While PEN has been a creative international approach to achieve a common objective through enhanced collaboration and information exchange, it also faces many challenges. In order to improve its effectiveness, more stakeholders need to join PEN and make use of it o exchange and share information, experiences and technologies. To date, approximately 700 stakeholders have joined PEN. It should provide them with useful incentives to sharing information and participating more in its activities.

The coming years will tell whether the network is able to support parties in achieving the aims of the Stockholm Convention. In order to measure their effectiveness, the arrangements will need to be assessed carefully as it will be difficult to single out the impact of PEN on the reduction of remaining stocks of PCBs and PCBs in the environmental compartments. Factors that can be considered when monitoring the effectiveness of PEN will be the number of projects for the environmentally sound management and elimination of PCBs developed and implemented through the Network, support by donors, the satisfaction of members with the activities of the Network, their subjective impression of whether more qualitative information and contacts are available to them through the Network, active engagement of the members, for example by sharing information through the social network and other means, number and scope of activities initiated.



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