Science in action: the work of the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre in Brazil

Interview between Charlie Avis, Public Information Officer for the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, Mr. Otavio Okano and Ms. Lady Virginia Traldi Meneses, Director and Technical Coordinator respectively, of the Stockholm Regional Centre for Latin America, located in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Charlie Avis (CA): Good morning Mr. Otavio Okano and Ms. Lady Virginia, thank you for time in sharing the work of the SCRC Brazil.

Mr. Otavio Okano: Thank you, Charlie, for this kind invitation and congratulations on this important initiative to disseminate information on the Regional Centres.

CA: Firstly, please tell us a little bit about the Regional Centre (RC) itself. Where are you housed, institutionally and geographically, how many staff do you have, and when was the RC established: basically how did the Centre come about?

Mr. Otavio Okano: The RC is located in the São Paulo city in São Paulo State, one of the most industrialized states in Brazil and very important economically, with a population of 44 million inhabitants in an area of 248,000 sq. km. A large number of agricultural and industrial activities that use a variety of chemical products are concentrated here. 

RC is housed in the Environmental Company of Sao Paulo State (CETESB) which was created in 1968 and its mission is to improve and to assure environmental quality of Sao Paulo State in order to achieve sustainable development. To accomplish this task CETESB has 46 offices scattered in the state with around 2,000 employees, highly qualified, most of them graduated in technical areas, such as engineering, biology, chemistry, geology and other professional specialties.

CETESB performs its action in many different fields such as: environmental permits; environmental quality contro;, enforcement of regulations; environmental monitoring and pollution charges on sources of pollution. Set up with modern facilities, equipped with analytical instruments based on leading-edge technology, our laboratories accredited by ISO/IEC 17025:2005, perform more than 350,000 analyses per year, encompassing a wide variety of physical-chemical, biological and toxicological tests on the most different matrices.

CETESB currently has the largest and most comprehensive network of environmental quality monitoring in the country. Air, water, sediment, groundwater, soil and vegetation are systematically studied; researched  resulting to a state policy on control actions and preservation for the benefit of society.

Besides that, CETESB works for the prevention, preparedness and response to chemical emergencies; provides technical support and intervention if such emergencies occurred on roads, railroads and maritime transports, hazardous substance discard, industries, gasoline stations, pipelines, and provides supports to the Emergency Preparedness in Cases of Disasters with Chemical Products in Latin America.

CETESB works with waste treatment and final disposal facilities, which includes environmental assessment and evaluation of technological feasibility as well. Since the 90’s it has a multidisciplinary team dealing with the management of contaminated sites that includes environmental drilling, soil sampling, monitoring well installation, ground-water sampling, and non-invasive site investigation with geophysical equipment.

The centre also participates and/or coordinates some of  the Latin American and the Caribbean networks, such as Chemical Emergency Network (REQUILAC), Prevention and Management of Contaminated Sites Network (RELASC) and Pan American Network of Information in Environment (REPIDISCA). 

In short, CETESB is actively engaged in the National Environmental Council (CONAMA) regulatory activities. In its capacity as environmental agency and RC it usually collaborates with discussions addressing national and subnational legislation on pollution control, chemicals and waste management and licensing in Brazil. It also shares experiences on enforcement and inspection in order to support GRULAC countries aiming at strengthening their regulatory capacity in these fields.

All this expertise led the Company to become an international certification agency and reference agency for environmental issues in Latin America for regional centers in the world and for United Nation.Due to its recognized and relevant technical expertise, CETESB was nominated, in 2007, by the Brazilian Government to become a Stockholm Convention Regional Centre on POPs for Latin America and the Caribbean Region and since then, has been rated with the maximum evaluation score.

CA: Do you serve all of the countries of the region, how many Parties are there, and how do you manage with languages: do you communicate solely in Spanish, or Portuguese, or English, or how?

Mr. Otavio Okano: We serve all parties of the Convention in the GRULAC countries that speak Spanish and English as well the Portuguese speaking African countries. Although Brazil is the unique country of GRULAC that speaks Portuguese, there have been no difficulties in conducting technical assistance and training programs for them. For Spanish speaking countries, the total technical class materials and the slide presentations are translated from Portuguese into Spanish language. Besides, the majority of CETESB’s trainers speak Spanish and only a few classes are simultaneously translated from Portuguese into Spanish. The same applies for English speaking countries, where the trainings are given by professionals who speak English and, occasionally, a simultaneous translation is performed. On the other hand, legislations, guidelines, analytical methods i.e., documents etc available in Portuguese  from Brazilian institutions that could be useful to the GRULAC countries are translated as needed.

CA: What are the main technical issues or focus areas covered by the RC?

Mr. Otavio Okano: Charlie, in order to define the technical issues to be offered, our strategy is to analyze the NIPs of the GRULAC parties that are already submitted and then, we identify their main priorities to be addressed. Based on CETESB’s expertise mentioned before, linked to  the NIPs priorities,  we focus on several environmental technical and legal issues, related to chemical and waste, especially POPs and Hg, comprising: toxicology; urban and health care solid waste management; PCBs and obsolete pesticide wastes management; BATs and BEPs measures for the Unintentional POPs; chemical emergency responses; soil and groundwater pollution prevention; identification, management and evaluation of contaminated sites with POPs and Hg; POPs and heavy metals environmental monitoring in the following matrixes: air, soil,  sediments, groundwater and biological samples (aquatic organisms, milk and human blood); laboratory analysis to monitor POPs (PCBs, chlorinated organic pesticides and dioxin and furans) and Hg; and regulatory frameworks and management guidance.

CA: So I understand one specific area of focus for the Centres is on POPs and on the Stockholm Convention’s Global Monitoring Plan in particular. What would you say is the level of awareness amongst policymakers and decision-makers in the region concerning POPs? And amongst the general public?

Ms. Lady Virginia: Charlie, as mentioned before, CETESB has recognized strength in the scientific, technological and legal areas. Our Centre has been working in strengthening the capacity of the GRULAC countries for the implementation of NIPs and transferring of technology through training programs. . The main targets of these activities are the policymakers and decision-makers and the technical staff. In this way, we provide them with the tools for improving the environment and to protect human health from POPs in the region.

In order to increase the broader awareness amongst the public in general we had developed an e-learning course on the Stockholm Convention on POPs having various  aspects of its implementation for the Brazilian stakeholders. From this experience, our RC has been developing an e-learning program on POPs in general to be extended to the Region. CETESB has a website with wide range of information on chemical management and we keep updating the RC webpage.

Regarding the Global Monitoring Plan, I would say that LAC has made a lot of efforts in training laboratories to perform POPs and Hg analysis, to improve the availability of  inventories and monitoring data base of these compounds in the Region. CETESB plays a crucial role in providing training to many laboratories of the GRULAC region including national laboratories.  However, much more needs to be done to improve GMP in GRULAC region. The establishment of a laboratory network for analysis of these compounds is challenging but crucial to overcome the lack of capacity at country level and to obtain reliable data base. Another way might be to build on other initiatives such as the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling network (GAPS) that covers the Region. Mechanism to promote coordination and facilitation would be necessary in order to synergize the efforts.

CA: How would you like the RC to evolve, in the next say 5 to 10 years?

Ms. Lady Virginia: Charlie, what we have been noticing is that developing and economies in transition country Parties have complied with the SC obligations for the first dozen POPs better than the new POPs. We therefore understand that for the management of new POPs a broader knowledge of the chemicals management is necessary in general, comprising, among others, applicable chemical and environmental legislations, integrated institutional arrangement with scientific support and control of chemical in product, in order to transpose the SC obligations to the national level.

In this context, I would say that in the next 5-10 years, our RC intends to provide capacity building  of these countries and to assist them technically and administratively  paving the way to the post 2020 chemical agenda.

CA: RC, we often highlight the fact that the world of sustainable management of chemicals and waste features quite a large number of prominent and successful, high-profile women, yourself included. Could you perhaps say a few words about how it was for you as a woman making a career in science, in the environmental sector, in chemicals and waste? And any advice for any budding female scientists out there who might read this interview? 

Ms. Lady Virginia: I would say that the persistent historical and global context of discrimination against women has made most of them believe they are not competent enough and, therefore unable to reach higher levels inside an organization at a professional level, especially at the technical level.

In Brazil, despite the difficulties faced by many women due to gender discrimination, especially in the poorest sections of the population, women constitute the majority of the labor force in the market. In my case, fortunately I was born in a family where I was able to study and  had the freedom to choose what career to follow and develop myself professionally, both in technical area such as management. I was lucky to have parents who always encouraged me and promoted my education. So I could be graduated in Chemical Engineering, specialized in Environmental Engineering and Industrial Administration, completed my PhD in the subject “Institutional, Legal, Political and Technical Aspects on Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Implementation: Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers”. In addition, CETESB, as a company dedicated to environmental issues, has always been open to new ideas and ideals and therefore has a large number of graduates and highly qualified women in its staff. Furthermore, I had   the opportunity to take part in several activities concerning chemicals and wastes.

What can I tell to women is that we cannot underestimate our power to carry out, because, among many qualities, we have the ability to conciliate professional activities with other areas of life. Also, women are the symbol of life, so they must  engage themselves in all technical or political spheres to leave it a better place for future generation in this wonderful Planet, where, regardless of gender, we are all human beings. 

CA: The theme of the 2015 Triple COPs was “Science to Action”. What does “Science to Action” mean to you and how might it guide the work of the RC?

Ms. Lady Virginia: In the 2015 Triple COPs our RC participated as a Scientific Fair exhibitor demonstrating our achievements in this subject. In fact, the theme itself was a great motivation for us since we needed to convert the results of scientific researches into concrete actions and therefore, to strengthen guidelines and science‐policy interface for the effectiveness of the Conventions. Let me highlight on the activities of CETESB that are routinely enforced, which have been shared with the countries by our RC. 

CA: Thank you, for your time and for your answers. Good luck with your important work!

Mr. Otavio Okano: Thank you, Charlie, and if you need any further information on our centre and its activities, please go to our and we look forward to working with you!