From the heart of Europe: the work of the Regional Centre in Brno, Czech Republic

Interview between Charlie Avis, Public Information Officer for the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, and Dr. Kateřina Šebková, Director of the Stockholm Regional Centre for Central and Eastern Europe, located in Brno, Czech Republic.

Charlie Avis (CA): Good morning Katka and thank you for your time to answer our questions: your Regional Centre is the next in a new series whereby we put one Centre per month “in the spotlight” in order to highlight all the many ways the Regional Centres contribute to the implementation of the conventions.

Dr. Kateřina Šebková (KS): Thank you, Charlie, for this great opportunity to share our work with a wider audience!

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?

KS: Charlie, the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre in Czech Republic (SCRC) is hosted by the Research Centre for Toxic Compounds in the Environment (RECETOX), which is an independent research centre operating within the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic since 2007. City of Brno is conveniently located 190 km southeast of Prague, the capital of the country, some 130 km north of Vienna (capital of Austria) and at about the same distance from another capital, Bratislava (Slovakia). It is in a region experiencing steady technological and economic growth over last 25 years, a hub of large life science projects and home to new growing business and technology incubators, and a city with more than 50,000 university students.

The RC was established on the basis of the Czech experience in working on implementation of the Stockholm Convention nationally in 2003, on the identified knowledge gaps and data needs through an European research project enhancing laboratory expertise in countries of the central and Southern Europe in 2004-5 (EU FP5 APOPSBAL), and on understanding that we have ability providing such technical assistance and capacity building when felt the urgent need for it among other countries.

And our team - you would be surprised - there are only two permanent staff of the SCRC, however we closely cooperate with and draw on resources available at the whole RECETOX having more than 200 staff, 4000 m2 of modern research space, 70 laboratories, two lecture rooms, and a more than 30 year-long expertise in dealing with environmental issues, interdisciplinary research as well as providing practical solutions for environmental decontamination and remediation. In addition, we maintain a large international network of experts who cooperate with us, thus our teams vary according to a project. We can have a team of five up to 50, depending on a task, challenges and money.

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

KS: We are able to communicate in several languages, but the Centre`s main languages are Czech and English. Moreover, we can and have run courses and provided consultations in Russian, Slovak and French as well. In addition, other Central and Eastern European languages are also spoken at RECETOX, so we are quite well set in this regard.

The RC serves all 23 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and supports over 30 other countries in other regions (Africa, Central Asia, and in Latin America) as a strategic scientific partner. In addition, we also work as a project partner with UNEP, UNIDO and UNDP and organize conferences, global or regional workshops, and summer schools.

When looking at the monitoring activities, we have so far supported almost 60 countries worldwide and while looking at our training, there are about 80 countries that benefited from our expertise and services.

CA: It must be very challenging, yet very rewarding. What are the main technical issues or focus areas covered by the RC and what activities does the RC have in order to overcome these challenges?

KS: I fully agree. When looking at the monitoring activities, we have so far supported almost 60 countries worldwide since 2005 and while looking at our training, there are about 80 countries that benefited from our expertise and services. This is about 50-200 people that visit us each year.

Our 2016-2019 work plan as SCRC concentrates on strengthening global capacities in chemical analyses of toxic chemicals, on support in implementation of the Global Monitoring Plan to the Stockholm Convention by operating monitoring networks (MONET) in Europe,  Africa and in the Czech Republic and by training experts in sampling, monitoring, and data mining and management. In addition, we will strive to support decision making by communicating science based advances in the research, presentation of environmental and human data in relation to toxic chemicals through electronic tools, by enlarging capacities in the management of PCB, new POPs, and by contributing to a greater understanding of linkages between environment and health. We also need to enhance visibility of our activities among our stakeholders, so we have a quarterly newsletter and a website and we try to attend many global meetings to meet our constituency. There are too many parallel issues, and I would say that main challenge for us is time.

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

KS: Charlie, on awareness raising among general public in our region, there is more to be done apart from a website and a quarterly newsletter that we release. On the other hand, we developed and operate publicly available instruments that enhance understanding of anyone interested in POP occurrence - our environmental data repository and portal is available since 2010 displaying POPs monitoring information generated by us and our partners ( Similar instrument was developed for global purposes to serve the effectiveness evaluation and Global Monitoring Plan. And this talk certainly is a good opportunity to spread the news further.

Decision makers in this region are quite aware of chemicals problem, namely in relation to environmental burdens and hotspots in our region, as the political and economic transition since 1990s revealed many unwanted or untreated inheritance of obsolete stocks and wastes that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, there are other issues related to changes in the region that can outweigh the importance of environmental protection. On the other hand, we need to raise their awareness on the strong link between chemicals and health and perhaps that could get POPs and other chemicals back to the spotlight. We emphasize this in each talk we do.

CA: The RC has clearly achieved a lot, but what is the single achievement of which you are most proud?

KS: We are really proud of the GMP data warehouse, a joint achievement of the BRS Scientific Branch and RECETOX. It is the first global electronic tool that is publicly available and brings under one roof validated global data on levels of POPs in core matrices (air, breast milk and water), allows to evaluate effectiveness of eliminating or minimizing POP releases into the environment. Its data browser generates maps, charts, evaluates trends, and is publicly available online, so I believe it has a very strong awareness raising as well as decision making potential (

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

KS: We started with environmental chemistry and a handful of chemicals under one Convention at the outset, nowadays our range of studied chemicals and expertise spans to more global instruments including SAICM and Minamata Convention on Mercury. Currently, we have a capacity to support others with expertise in relation to POPs, emerging chemicals, endocrine disrupters, non-EDCs, as well as heavy metals. We are working hard on enhancing our understanding of links between health and environment as well as improving the speed of the transfer of knowledge from science to policy by being involved in larger population studies and working on harmonization of data collection, processing, visualization and data mining in order to be prepared and being able to capture all aspects of human exposure as well as holding solid data to support decision making worldwide.

CA: Katerina, can we switch to a topic slightly more personal? How did you come to lead this RC, how did your career lead you this in your direction, and what advice would you have for other women, hoping or striving for a career in science per se, or in international development more generally?

KS: Sure, I am happy to share this with others. I have a degree and a PhD in chemistry from both the Czech Republic and France and I started working in a family business as specialist for food commodities. Since 2003, I worked as chemical specialist and negotiator for the Ministry of Environment of the Czech Republic on chemicals management, and represented the Czech Republic in negotiations on new global legal agreements or EU legislation in relation to mercury and persistent organic pollutants for eight years. I was also representing the CEE region in the bureau of the Stockholm Convention from 2007 to 2009 and in the bureau of Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Mercury between 2010 and 2013. I joined RECETOX in 2012 to run the Stockholm Convention Regional Centre and to establish and maintain a more solid bridge from science to policy and back and thus employ my previous work and life experience.

I would say to other ladies - science is exciting, very demanding and not everyone can be an excellent scientist, so pressure is on. On the other hand, scientific background has certainly helped me greatly in finding my niche in working at the ministry and speaking several languages. And lastly, I would add that there continues to be a dire need for people with a scientific background at the policy level to push environmental issues to a more prominent position (where they should be) and increase understanding among decision makers on the subject matter that affects us as well as future generations.

CA: And lastly, please, what do you think are the most pressing, emerging issues will be for sustainable management of chemicals and wastes in central and Eastern Europe, in the next years, and how well is the region equipped to meet those challenges?

KS: In two words - complex mixtures - is the future pressing topic for all of us. So far, we have globally mostly generated information on impacts and effects of individual chemicals in the environment and for a limited pool of chemicals, but there is much more to be done, quite urgently. We have a little or no knowledge on synergistic effects of chemical mixtures that can enhance negative impacts of individual toxic compounds and such mixtures are all around us - in our personal care products, consumer goods, food and many other items.

The region will be better off in near future as mentioned above on where we would like to evolve. Our weakness is that a longitudinal studies have not been carried out more broadly in this region, but we are working on it. We gradually strengthened capacities and span of our research infrastructure, we established a new cohort (longitudinal) study in 2015, building on expertise available through WHO ELSPAC study since 1991, and we are also launching an exposome study that would generate important information for countries in the region as well as for global community and work of international organizations such as WHO and UNEP.

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

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