Norway's fight against environmental toxins: Knowledge-based management produces global results

Investigations in areas with a largely untouched environment in the High North can confirm the existence of environmental toxins that have travelled from distant pollution sources. If transport over long distances can be proven, the Norwegian environmental authorities will have yet another card up their sleeve in discussions about international regulation of environmental toxins. (Photo: IdaB COPOL/Polaråret)

Norwegian research has played an important role in the efforts to achieve international regulation of the environmental toxin group PBDEs. “A small country like Norway can achieve a lot in international negotiations if it has sound knowledge to rely on,” the researchers emphasize.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, belong to a group of substances called brominated flame retardants. They have been one of the most debated “new” environmental toxins in the past decade.

From research to prohibition

In 1998, Norwegian researchers started developing analysis methods and mapping PBDEs in Norway’s natural environment. After six years, the first ban was in place in the EU countries and, two years later, the substance pentaBDE was included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The convention is intended to protect people and the environment from persistent environmental toxins that can be transported over long distances in water or the air, and that accumulate in the food chain.

“These prohibitions are a good example of how small countries can achieve results at the international level provided that their arguments are backed by sound knowledge,” says project manager Christian Dons of the Climate and Pollution Agency (KLIF).

Time-consuming processes

Together with senior researcher Martin Schlabach of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), Dons gave a talk about the challenges relating to environmental toxins at a conference organised by the Research Council of Norway’s Norwegian environmental research towards 2015 (Miljø 2015) programme on 16 and 17 February.

The two researchers used polybrominated diphenyl ethers as an example of how government agencies and researchers work on issues relating to environmental toxins. These substances were used as flame retardants from the 1970s, for textiles and plastic materials, among other things. Towards the end of the 1990s, awareness grew of the negative effects of such use.

“It takes a long time from suspicion first arises that a substance is an environmental toxin until robust scientific documentation is available confirming the claim. Documentation of its spread and effects must be sound if international support is to be won. Furthermore, researchers and government agencies are opposed by strong economic forces in these matters. The chemical manufacturers have often invested great resources in product development and manufacturing facilities and therefore want to make money from their products for as long as possible,” says Martin Schlabach.

The High North argument

Environmental data from the High North has proven to be an important argument in international political processes relating to environmental toxins. There has been strong focus in recent years on the transportation of environmental toxins over long distances to the High North, and to Svalbard in particular.

“Norway has become a kind of international watchdog in these areas. When we identify environmental toxins with much higher concentrations than expected in an untouched area like this, we also document the fact that the environmental toxins are transported over long distances. This gives us good arguments for why other countries should implement measures that will really make a difference in order to limit the spread of these toxins,” says Schlabach.

Important Research Council programme

Schlabach and Dons emphasise the great importance the Research Council’s Miljø 2015 programme and its forerunner PROFO (Pollution: sources, spread, effects and measures) have had for Norway’s management of environmental toxins in recent years.

“Norway does a good job when it comes to research into and management of environmental toxins, considering the resources that are available to us. We produce relevant and useful knowledge while at the same time coming up with constructive proposals for measures. This wins us support internationally,” emphasises Christian Dons.

Source: The Research Council of Norway

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