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POPs (Persistent organic pollutants)

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are one of the Federal Environment Ministry's priority areas of work in chemicals.

POPs are chemical substances that remain in the environment for a long time after their release and accumulate in fatty tissue via the food chain. They can reach concentrations which have adverse effects on humans and the environment. In addition, POPs have the potential for large-scale dispersal, spreading globally via water or air. They thus pose risks at local and regional level to human health and the environment, not just in industrialised and populated regions, but also pollute regions in corners of the globe far removed from emissions. These include, in particular, the Arctic regions and mountain ranges, where POPs spread via the air and are deposited through condensation. Significantly higher concentrations of these chemicals have been found in the cold polar regions in environmental samples taken across different environmental media.

POPs include a number of plant protection products (such as DDT) and industrial chemicals (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs) as well as dioxins and furans which are unwanted highly toxic by-products of production and incineration processes.

Stockholm Convention

The Stockholm Convention entered into force on 17 May 2004. It was ratified by 184 countries which, in doing so, made a commitment to complying with its provisions. These include the commitment to develop a plan on the implementation of the Convention's obligations as well as to regularly update and implement this plan.

The substances regulated under the Convention are subject to bans and restrictions worldwide with the goal to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of these substances in line with the precautionary principle. By banning and restricting the production, use, import and export of these substances and products containing these substances, their release into the environment will be prevented or at least minimised. The Convention also contains provisions on unintentional releases of POPs from industrial processes, which are to be prevented or at least minimised through the use of the best available environmental technology.

The POP list now contains 34 chemicals after the three new POPs, methoxychlor, dechlorane plus and UV328, were added at the 11th Conference of the Parties.

The European Union implements the obligations of the Stockholm Convention through Regulation (EU) 2019/1021 on persistent organic pollutants.

The original twelve chemicals on the POP list, the so-called "dirty dozen", were already banned from production and use or largely regulated in most industrialised countries – including Germany. The substances concerned were mainly used as plant protection products and biocides. Other substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were primarily used in electric transformers and as plasticisers in building materials. While large PCB-containing electrical equipment has been disposed of, the decontamination of buildings is an ongoing task.

Developing countries and emerging economies are confronted time and again with enormous challenges in the handling of these substances. They need support through technical assistance and capacity building to substitute, reduce and dispose of POPs. The newly included POPs are also a challenge for industrialised countries.

Last updated: 13.06.2023

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