Interview: Science as the Bottom Line

Interview with Abiola Olanipekun, Chief of the BRS Scientific Support Branch by Charlie Avis, BRS Public Information Officer

Charlie Avis: Abiola, why will a Science Fair accompany the forthcoming triple COPs of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions here in Geneva, from 7-9th May 2015? 

Abiola Olanipekun: Thank you. We are staging a 3 day Science Fair in order to raise awareness amongst delegates, parties and stakeholders, concerning how science underpins the implementation of the three conventions. The event will feature interactive displays, special events, film viewings, hands-on exhibits, panel discussions, lots of presentations and posters, and this diversity reflects the enormous range of stakeholders who together are moving forward the agenda for sustainable management of chemicals and waste.

CA: How does science underpin the conventions’ implementation, then?

AO: The science/policy interface is of supreme importance, in a world shaped by often largely political and economic interests. Right since the negotiation and adoption of the three Conventions, a sound scientific base was seen as necessary to give the Conventions both the information, and the credibility, they need in order to pursue their goals of protecting human health and the environment.

CA: More specifically?

AO: Scientific analysis is central to every step of the process. For example, when a chemical is proposed for listing under the Stockholm Convention, a party is to submit a proposal, accompanied by a scientific justification for the need for global control. Scientific evaluation is carried out by experts from various countries from all United Nations (UN) regions, who are involved in the work of the respective technical subsidiary bodies under the Conventions. These experts sign a “declaration of conflict of interest” meaning that they will not pursue any financial interests or influence by a commercial entity to enter into their deliberations. Further steps requiring inputs from the scientific community include risk mitigation through identification of suitable alternatives and the search for Best Available Techniques and Best Environmental Practices. Guidelines for monitoring, capacity-building on the implementation of alternatives, assistance with reporting obligations, and a host of other activities are also undertaken based on state-of-the-art science and objective expertise.

CA: It sounds like a lot of work. Is it bearing fruit?

AO: Yes, the good news is that according to our data, people and the environment are less exposed to certain Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs) than previously. The trend is definitely downwards with respect to chemicals listed in the Convention annexes. But at the same time, we have our work cut out: since new chemicals are entering the market – and therefore entering our environment and our bodies, all the time.

CA: Please tell me about this good news, what are you actually measuring? 

AO: We are mandated to carry out a global monitoring programme to measure POPs concentrations in the air, water and in human populations (breast milk and maternal blood) and have been implementing this global programme since the entry into force of the Stockholm Convention in 2004. Within 11 years of existence of the Convention, a rich and extremely valuable global POPs monitoring dataset has been generated. These data are compiled into Regional and Global Monitoring Reports every six years. The first reports were published in 2009, showing baseline concentrations of POPs in all UN regions, and the second round of reports are being issued in the next weeks and will focus on the identification of trends in exposure to POPs over time.

CA: And what do the data show?

AO: The trends are definitely downwards! This demonstrates the effectiveness of the Convention. For the first time, these monitoring data are also made available through a global monitoring plan data warehouse and information system which can be accessed at  The development and adoption of technical guidelines for environmentally sound management of wastes under the Basel Convention is also critical in ensuring that hazardous wastes are managed in a manner to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects which may result from such wastes.

CA: Very impressive indeed. What are the major challenges for the Conventions, in terms of the scientific underpinning for implementation?

AO: Capacity. Many developing countries lack the capacity – or resources - to effectively engage in the scientific processes, meaning that it is challenging to ensure that their inputs are properly integrated. This is especially problematic because exposure to certain types of chemicals and pollutants is often higher in developing countries than elsewhere – for example in the by-hand and informal recycling of electronic waste.

CA: How do you respond to that?

AO: The Secretariat has a very full technical assistance programme, and all efforts are made to include the regional perspectives, including through the designated Basel and Stockholm Conventions  Regional Centres, and by bringing developing country delegates to the relevant meetings. Financial support from our “donor” partners is very necessary for this. But beyond that, we need to better assist parties to mainstream scientific approaches and evidence into national development planning processes, to encourage sharing of information between parties and between sectors, to integrate the chemicals and wastes issues into the wider development agenda, and to ensure that these issues are properly reflected in the planning and definition of the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to strengthen the “synergies” at all these different levels and scales.

CA: And the Science Fair, is it the first step towards that?

AO:  Not the first step, but a very significant step, yes. There is no time to waste. I would like to thank the donors and hosts of the Science Fair – the governments of Finland and Switzerland respectively – for supporting us to highlight the importance of Science to Action: Working for a Safer Tomorrow.