Launch of the Organochlorine Programme

  • Deborah Morris
Associate Minister of the Environment

Ministry for the Environment, Wellington

Hon Simon Upton, members of the Organochlorines Programme Consultative Group, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. It's great to be here today to launch the start of this work and make a firm move toward the pledge in the Coalition Agreement to phase out persistent chemicals, such as organchlorines, by the year 2000.

Simon has set the scene for today's briefing.

I'd like to provide you with further information and details of the Government's work programme to address persistent organochlorine pollutants and outline our future direction in managing these substances.

But first I want to spend a few moments discussing why these chlorinated substances are getting so much attention.

The fact is that not all organochlorines are toxic to humans and animal life.

The small number that are the focus of international concern are described as persistent, toxic, vapour-forming and ones which concentrate up the food chain.

These chemicals are known as 'persistent organic pollutants' or POPs. Of these the dioxins and PCBs are probably of the greatest concern.

Potential harmful effects

The potential for POPs to cause harmful effects on humans and animals has been well catalogued from studies, particularly on animals, in the Northern Hemisphere.

POP substances are stable and vapour-forming and can be carried by air currents for long distances. Eventually they condense and are deposited on land and water, especially in cold climatic regions.

If they contaminate the food supply of animals, the organochlorines become more concentrated as they move up through the food chain.

That is why the highest levels of persistent organochlorines are found in species at the top of the food chain: human beings, fish-eating birds and marine mammals.

They build up in the fatty tissue and stay in the body for a long time because they are only very slowly metabolised and excreted.

Animal studies have found that dioxins have the potential to cause and promote cancer, disrupt endocrine and immune systems, and adversely affect reproduction and behaviour.

We don't yet know for sure if humans are affected in the same way.

Organochlorines in the New Zealand context

Organochlorines such as PCBs are capable of causing ecological damage and are no longer used in New Zealand.

But organochlorine wastes still need to be disposed of, contaminated sites cleaned up, and dioxin emissions controlled.

Although traces of these chemicals are found all over the world, even in remote areas, indications are that the average New Zealander's exposure is in the low to medium range by international standards.

But we need to know the actual extent New Zealanders and our environment have been exposed to them.

And we must ensure that the risks of further exposure are minimised.

The Organochlorines Programme

That is the thinking behind the Organochlorines Programme that Government established two years ago to study the situation in New Zealand and develop proposals for control and clean-up.

I will now discuss the work in hand, explain where it fits into the international context, and update you on how it is progressing.

I also want to use this occasion to formally launch an important public consultation phase of this programme that we are now entering.

This new phase is being marked by the release of a brochure telling New Zealanders about the programme.

Government is inviting people who are interested to have a say in the way we approach the task of setting standards and guidelines for persistent organochlorines, such as dioxin.

But back to the programme itself.

The Organochlorines under study

Two years ago the Government launched the investigations phase of the organochlorines programme.

The chemicals under scrutiny are either no longer used in New Zealand, or are unwanted by-products of industrialisation.

Ten organochlorine chemicals, or groups of chemicals, have been singled out for study:

Dioxins - are mainly produced as unwanted by-products from incineration and a number of other industrial activities. Dioxin-contaminated wastes have also resulted from the use of Pentachlorophenol, and from the use of chlorine in pulp and paper manufacture;

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) - once used in the electrical supply industry;

PCP (pentachlorophenal) - a fungicide once used extensively by New Zealand sawmills;

DDT - an insecticide once used worldwide in horticulture and agriculture.

Dieldrin - used as an agricultural insecticide, and, along with chlordane, in the timber processing industry;
The remaining organochlorine pesticides under study were used less extensively in New Zealand agriculture. They are aldrin, lindane, hexachlorobenzene and heptachlor.

The first task is to find out what levels of these chemicals exist in our air, soil and water and ecosystems.

Consultative group

This first phase of the programme has benefited from ongoing advice from a consultative group.

The group includes representatives from central and local government, Maori, industry, professional bodies, and non-government organisations.

The group has helped to monitor the progress of the programme and is providing advice and peer review.

The complex and technical nature of the programme means that the group is playing a vital role.

Over the past 18 months, it has met regularly.

A number of information bulletins have been produced by the Ministry for the Environment to keep stakeholders and other interested parties up to date with developments.

Scope of the investigation

Meanwhile the investigations phase has seen the Ministry commissioning a wide range of research to check organochlorine levels in the environment, in food and in people.

Underway here are detailed studies in air, soil and the aquatic environment.

We know that people are exposed to organochlorines mainly through their food intake.

This is also under investigation, with a study underway on dietary intake, and, by measuring organochlorine levels in blood, the extent to which these contaminants are already present in our bodies.

Six key questions

To determine the situation in New Zealand, the first phase of the programme is focussing on the following key questions:

What levels of dioxins, PCBs and organochlorine pesticides are present in our environment?

For these contaminants, how 'clean' or 'polluted' is New Zealand relative to other countries?

Are organochlorines found here at levels likely to pose a threat to environmental ecology or to human health?

What are the reservoirs and current emission sources of dioxins and PCBs in New Zealand, and what should be done to manage any risks associated with them?

What emission standards are applied through regulation in other countries to protect human health and the environment, and what standards should be adopted in New Zealand?

Can contaminated soils and organochlorine wastes be treated safely, and what clean-up standards should apply?
The work of the Organochlorines Programme over the rest of 1997 and into next year will concentrate on steadily finding answers to these key questions.

Tackling the worst first

The findings will be published as the information from the investigation phase becomes available.

We figure this intensive fact-finding phase will last until the end of 1998.

For the year ahead we will continue to focus on the ten organochlorine chemicals, or groups of chemicals, I mentioned earlier.

The thinking behind this is that we tackle the nastiest ones first.

These are the organochlorines that are on the way out.

They are no longer in use and it is time to tidy them up once and for all.

Links with other Ministry work

These ten organochlorines, or groups of organochlorines, are now identified as the highest priority for action in the wider hazardous substances work programme.

They are the first part of wider activity on managing hazardous substances aimed at addressing the safe use of chemicals and disposal of wastes.

Other key elements of this activity include developing regulations for the new Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act and shaping national environmental standards for managing these wastes.

We have learned some hard lessons about the need to be more precautionary in our approval of new substances.

The Environmental Risk Management Agency currently being set up under the HSNO Act is testimony to that.

Relationship to global initiatives

Internationally, there is now general agreement that chemicals identified as POPs, including specific organochlorine chemicals, need to be formally withdrawn from use.

The United Nations Environment Programme is planning an initiative by which all governments would agree to phase out the use of these particular chemicals where they are still used except for all but very restricted and essential purposes for which no alternatives presently exist.

Here in New Zealand, there is no need to use POP chemicals at all and they should be formally and completely banned from use.

Old stocks for example, of organochlorine pesticides should be destroyed and where possible, contaminated sites cleaned up.

Locally, this international effort is being supported through the Organochlorines Programme.

Next year, depending on what is emerging internationally from UNEP, the focus of the programme may broaden to include other chemicals if they are designated as POPs.

A key consideration here is finding out new information from the international scientific community, and through UNEP, about which other substances are toxic, bioaccumulative and vapour-forming and persistent.

These criteria must be met before other persistent chemicals can be added to our hit list.

The Coalition Government's phase-out policy is being guided by these considerations and the step-by-step programme of the international community.

Shaping standards and guidelines

Meanwhile New Zealand's overall status with respect to the "toxic ten" chemicals or groups of these chemicals will be evaluated for the first time in this comprehensive stocktake of our environment.

On the basis of this information, clean up standards and guidelines will later be drawn up as part of an overall management strategy.

Clean up levels will be identified for sites contaminated by organochlorines.

Technologies capable of undertaking site clean up and destroying organochlorine-containing wastes will also be identified.

Public consultation initiative

I want now to turn to the second phase of the organochlorines programme - the public consultation initiative.

Over the coming year we want to build up the public profile of the programme.

We want this effort to culminate in a formal round of public consultation to ensure standards and guidelines for organochlorines are developed in line with community expectations.

To help ensure people have reliable information on this important topic, the Ministry has produced a brochure to keep people who are interested up to date on the ongoing work of the programme.

By filling in the return slip at the back, individuals can obtain more detailed information and/or indicate their interest in wanting to discuss the programme.

It is a simple document about complex issues, normally the preserve of research scientists.

The other key role of the brochure is to provide an opportunity for people interested in the programme to make an input at this stage.

In the lead-up to the new millennium, we want New Zealanders to help us define the issues and concerns and help us to find solutions we can all live with.

The third and last phase of the programme will take us right up to the edge of the new century.

It will involve taking public comments into account in the final preparation of the standards and guideline documents.

The programme is expected to make final recommendations to the Government by the end of 1999.

Conclusion

The Government knows that New Zealand has one chance to get this right and it is pulling out the stops to ensure the best job is done.

This important work cannot be done overnight.

It is being carefully planned and carried out so that the investigations make the best use of the budget accorded to the programme.

We believe all New Zealanders want to ensure that our precious reputation as a clean country - on which many of our products are marketed internationally - can be sustained.

ENDS