Impacts of POPs

General facts

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are poisonous chemicals which might negatively affect human health and the environment. Transported through air and water, they might affect humans and the environment even at a considerable distance from the place where they were used and released into the atmosphere. They resist degradation for a long time and might bioaccumulate and move along the food chain.

Generally, POPs get into human body through food, in particular meat, fish, chicken eggs, and dairy products. People who live or work close to the POPs sources might get a significant dose of persistent organic pollutants by inhaling the contaminated air. In such case, even a small amount of the toxic chemical might lead to diseases.

Scientific research has proven that POPs may cause such illnesses as chloracne, other skin illnesses, disrupt the normal functioning of the immune, reproductive, hormone, nervous systems; POPs might lead to diabetes, to reduce lactation period, and development delays among children.

In particular, dioxins have a very strong negative effect on the human immune and endocrine systems: the allowed daily dose, e.g. a dose which can be consumed in a day without any negative consequences, is estimated in picograms, a unit billion times smaller than a gram.

The main illnesses caused by dioxin impact are chloracne and liver diseases. Chloracne is a severe form of acne disfiguring the face skin. The disease may last for years and is hardly curable.  

Other serious negative effects that dioxins might have on human health include:

  • Neurobehavioral changes and changes in the function of the thyroid body (disrupted synthesis of thyroid hormones) among new-borns who were fed with POP-contaminated breast milk;
  • Secondary immunodeficiency which might be caused even by smallest amounts of POPs in a human body;
  • Gonatoxic, embryotoxic, and mutagenous effects (the effect of dioxin at the genetics level was identified; for example, a significant number of American men who fought in the Vietnam war were found to have children with severe congenital deformities)
  • Delays in physical and mental development
  • Reduced life expectancy etc.


Pesticides play an important role in agriculture; at the same time they might cause multiple health problems depending on the extent of the impact.

Traces of pesticides are regularly found in fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, oranges and carrots, which are often used for baby food production. In addition to fruits and vegetables, pesticide traces can be found also in many other popular food items. For example, lindane – a pesticide which can destroy hormones and is now forbidden in Europe – can still be found in chocolate produced from cocoa beans imported from developing countries, which up until recently were actively using POP-containing pesticides in agriculture. Extensive international research conducted in 1998 identified lindane in 12 out of 16 samples. Traces of lindane were also recently detected in milk, beef, cheese, and mushrooms.

Pesticides pose a great threat to children health. Children may fall under the effect of pesticides in multiple situations: when parents use pesticides to protect their children against mosquitos, flies, cockroaches and mice, without appropriate precautionary measures; when pesticides are stored within the reach of children; when plant-protection agents are used at the playgrounds in preschool facilities, schools, summer camps, or parks.


The effect of DDT on humans is highly harmful; yet it hasn’t been studied enough. It has been found that in just one decade 1970-1980 the incidence of pesticide-caused poisoning has increased by 250%. In a human body, just like in case of many other species, DDT accumulates primarily in body fat, is however also able to accumulate in breast milk and even pass though the placental barrier.

DDT may cause hormonal changes, kidney diseases, diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems, cirrhosis, and chronic hepatitis. Despite the absence of genotoxicity, DDT is classified as a chemical of a high carcinogen risk. Hence, DDT shall be considered a chemical with highly dangerous potential impact on the environment and human health.


PCBs [1.3.1 What are PCBs] are one of the most wide-spread persistent organic pollutants. They were produced in large volumes and widely used starting from 1929. From 1929 till the halt in production in 1986 there was produced 2 million tons of PCBs.

PCBs can bioaccumulate in human body, and may negatively affect the endocrine system, change sexual behaviour, cause delays in physical and mental development among children. PCBs start affecting a woman’s body and the foetus even before the embryo is formed by negatively affecting the germ cells.

In more detail about PCBs and their impact on human you might read in the articles “What are PCBs” and “Negative impact on humans and the environment”

Raising awareness

Raising awareness of the society is one of the most important goals set by the Stockholm Convention, since the POPs due to their chemical and physical properties pose a great threat to human health.

According to Article 9 of the Convention “information on health and safety of humans and the environment shall not regarded as confidential”.

There shall be developed and implemented public awareness programmes on persistent organic pollutants, which shall include the training of working, education, research, technical, and managerial personnel. In addition, it is important to provide communities with the access to the National reports on the implementation of the Stockholm Convention, so as to provide them with an opportunity to bring in their own suggestions and comments.

Raising public awareness might be done by specially created national or regional information centres, or with the help of data bases, reports, and media sources.

The website of the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention shall be specifically mentioned here, as it provides complete information on all POPs-related issues:

  • Information on the initial list of POPs
  • New POPs, or chemicals proposed for listing; documents on the procedures and recommendations on the listing;
  • Reports by the POPs Review Committee
  • Reports by the Conference of the Parties
  • National Reports by the parties on the convention implementation
  • Financial mechanism
  • Information on export and import of POPs

The International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), which is a global network of non-governmental health and environmental organizations from more than 100 countries, also provides information on POPs and related issues. Initially, the network was created to facilitate the negotiations on an international agreement aimed at protecting human health and the environment against the impact of the group of chemicals which later got the name persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

After governments signed the Stockholm Convention on POPs, IPEN has increased the scope of its activity and today also supports local, national, regional, and international initiatives to protect human health and the environment against the harmful impact of toxic chemicals.