GENEVA (Reuters) - Negotiators from more than 180 countries are nearing agreement on a global ban on a toxic chemical linked to cancer and other health issues, but China is pushing for an exemption for use in firefighting foams, campaigners said on Wednesday.
PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and other fluorinated organic compounds known as PFAS are used widely, including in non-stick kitchen ware such as Teflon, textiles, food packaging, photo-imaging, and fire-fighting foams on oil rigs and at airports.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is holding negotiations till May 10 on expanding three treaties that target hazardous substances, including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
A key issue is whether to ban fluorinated firefighting foam, which is a leading cause of water contamination associated with cancer, thyroid problems and harm to fetal development, the activist group IPEN said.
“We are here with fire fighters, fire safety experts and indigenous experts to call for a global ban on PFOA,” Pamela Miller, co-chair of IPEN, told a news briefing.
“This is a dispersive use that is harming the health of firefighters directly and also contaminating the drinking water of millions of people around the world,” she said.
Joe DiGangi, IPEN senior science advisor, said countries were seeking some 10 exemptions covering items including textiles, electronic devices and pharmaceuticals. The European Union, backed by industries, is among them, he said.
“The negotiation is continuing but it appears there will be an agreement to adopt a global ban. Discussion is focused on how many exemptions will be in that global ban,” DiGangi said.
“The one country advocating continued use of PFOS in fire-fighting foam is China,” he said.
The head of China’s delegation at the U.N. talks, who declined to give his name or to confirm Beijing’s position while the closed-door negotiations continue, told Reuters: “We have some flexibility.”
Concerns have been raised about this class of chemicals in countries including the United States and Australia.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in February it plans to control this group of toxic chemicals found in Americans’ drinking water but stopped short of setting limits until later this year.
In Norway, the oil company Equinor has shifted to fluorine-free foam at its 40 offshore installations, which use about 100 tonnes of foam per year, said Lars Ystanes, Equinor environmental advisor.
Activists say non-fluorinated fire-fighting foams are effective and cost-neutral alternatives which are already in use at major airports including Copenhagen and London’s Heathrow.
“Firefighters across the country including every commercial airport in Australia now only use fluorine-free foam,” said Commander Michael Tisbury, Vice President of the United Firefighters Union, of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
“As a firefighter I can tell you that our anxiety levels are already high because we know we have had repeated exposure to this toxic chemical for over 30 years,” he said. “Right now we feel like we have a ticking time bomb in our bodies.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones