Persistent organic pollutant

Persistent organic pollutant

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes. Because of this, they have been observed to persist in the environment, to be capable of long-range transport, bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue, biomagnify in food chains, and to have potential significant impacts on human health and the environment.

In May 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council (GC) decided to begin investigating POPs, initially beginning with a short list of the following twelve POPs, known as the 'dirty dozen': aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, and toxaphene.

Since then, this list has generally been accepted to include such substances as carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and certain brominated flame-retardants, as well as some organometallic compounds such as tributyltin (TBT).

The groups of compounds that make up POPs are also classed as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) or TOMPs (Toxic Organic Micro Pollutants.)

Many POPs are currently or were in the past used as pesticides. Others are used in industrial processes and in the production of a range of goods such as solvents, polyvinyl chloride, and pharmaceuticals. Though there are a few natural sources of POPs, most POPs are created by humans in industrial processes, either intentionally or as byproducts.

Chemical properties

Some of the chemical characteristics of POPs include low water solubility, high lipid solubility, semi-volatility, and high molecular masses. POPs with molecular weights lower than 236 g/mol are less toxic, less persistent in the environment, and have more reversible effects than those with higher molecular masses. POPs are frequently halogenated, usually with chlorine. The more chlorine groups a POP has, the more resistant it is to being broken down over time. One important factor of their chemical properties such as lipid solubility results in the ability to pass through biological phospholipid membranes and bioaccumulate in the fatty tissues of living organisms.

Long-range transport

POPs released to the environment have been shown to travel vast distances from their original source. Due to their chemical properties, many POPs are semi-volatile and insoluble. These compounds are therefore unable to transport directly through the environment. The indirect routes include attachment to particulate matter, and through the food chain. The chemicals' semi-volatility allows them to travel long distances through the atmosphere before being deposited. Thus POPs can be found all over the world, including in areas where they have never been used and remote regions such as the middle of oceans and Antarctica. The chemicals' semi-volatility also means that they tend to volatilize in hot regions and accumulate in cold regions, where they tend to condense and stay. PCBs have been found in precipitation.

The ability of POPs to travel great distances is part of the explanation for why countries that banned the use of specific POPs are no longer experiencing a decline in their concentrations; the wind may carry chemicals into the country from places that still use them.

Health concerns

Exposure to POPs can take place through diet, environmental exposure, or accidents. POP exposure can cause death and illnesses including disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems; neurobehavioral disorders; and cancers possibly including breast cancer.

The lipid solubility of POPs allows them to bioaccumulate in fatty tissues of animals. Many of the first generation organochlorine insecticides such as DDT were particularly noted for this characteristic.

A study published in 2006 indicated a link between blood serum levels of POPs and diabetes. Individuals with elevated levels of persistent organic pollutants (DDT, dioxins, PCBs and Chlordane, among others) in their body were found to be up to 38 times more likely to be insulin resistant than individuals with low levels of these pollutants, though the study did not demonstrate a cause and effect relationship. As most exposure to POPs is through consumption of animal fats, study participants with high levels of serum POPs are also very likely to be consumers of high amounts of animal fats, and thus the consumption of the fats themselves, or other associated factors may be responsible for the observed increase in insulin resistance. Another possibility is that insulin resistance causes increased accumulation of POPs. Among study participants, obesity was associated with diabetes only in people who tested high for these pollutants. These pollutants are accumulated in animal fats, so minimizing consumption of animal fats may reduce the risk of diabetes. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, type 2 diabetes is on the list of presumptive diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange (which contained the POP dioxin) in the Vietnam War.

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