Persistent organic pollutant

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Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes.1 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,1 and to have potential significant impacts on human health and the environment.

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.1 There are a few natural sources of POPs, such as volcanic activity and vegetational fires,2 but most POPs are created by humans in industrial processes, either intentionally or as byproducts.1

Public concern about contamination by POPs exists, because several have been identified as hormone disruptors which can alter normal function of endocrine and reproductive systems in humans and wildlife. There are many risks and effects of having these chemicals in our environment and none of them are a benefit to the Earth. After these pollutants are put into the environment, they are able to stay in the system for decades causing problems such as cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, immunological, behavioral, neurological and reproductive discrepancies in human and other animal species.

The effect of POPs on human and environmental health was discussed, with intention to eliminate or severely restrict their production, by the international community at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.


Following the Second World War, scientists started to recognize that certain organic chemicals, deriving from both natural and anthropogenic origin are able to persist in the environment for exceptionally long periods of time by resisting photolytic, chemical, and biological degradation. The compounds characterized as POPs were observed to travel long-ranges in the air, and water before settling in sediment and soil. POP's were found to accumulate in food chains to levels that could result in serious harm to the environment, wildlife, and human health.3page needed The groups of compounds that make up POPs are also classed as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) or TOMPs (Toxic Organic Micro Pollutants).

In May 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council decided to investigate POPs, beginning with a list of the following twelve POPs, known as the 'dirty dozen':4 aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, and toxaphene.1

The 2001 Stockholm Convention’s Dirty Dozen are:25not in citation given 6full citation needed

  • Aldrin, an insecticide used in soils to kill termites, grasshoppers, Western corn rootworm, and others, is also known to kill birds, fish, and humans. Humans are primarily exposed to aldrin through dairy products and animal meats.
  • Chlordane, an insecticide used to control termites and on a range of agricultural crops, is known to be lethal in various species of birds, including mallard ducks, bobwhite quail, and pink shrimp, a chemical that remains in the soil with a reported half-life of one year. Chlordane has been postulated to affect the human immune system and is classified as a possible human carcinogen. Human exposure is believed to occur primarily through the air.
  • Dieldrin, a pesticide used to control termites, textile pests, insect-borne diseases and insects living in agricultural soils. Dieldrin also results from rapid conversion of aldrin to dieldrin in the soil, which persist in soil with a half-life of approximately five years. Dieldrin is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic animals, particularly frogs, whose embryos can develop spinal deformities after exposure to low levels. Dieldrin residues have been found in air, water, soil, fish, birds, and mammals. Human exposure to dieldrin primarily derives from food.
  • Endrin, an insecticide sprayed on the leaves of crops, and used to control rodents. Animals can metabolize endrin, so fatty tissue accumulation is not an issue, however the chemical has a long half-life in soil for up to 12 years. Endrin is highly toxic to fish. Human exposure results primarily through food.
  • Heptachlor, a pesticide primarily used to kill soil insects and termites, along with cotton insects, grasshoppers, other crop pests, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Heptachlor, even at every low doses has been associated with the decline of several wild bird populations – Canadian Geese and American Kestrels. In laboratory tests have shown high-dose heptachlor as lethal, with adverse behavioral changes and reduced reproductive success at low-doses, and is classified as a possible human carcinogen. Human exposure primarily results from food.
  • Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), an industrial and technical chemical first introduced in 1945–1959 to treat seeds because it can kill fungi on food crops. HCB-treated seed grain consumption is associated with photosensitive skin lesions, colic, debilitation, and a metabolic disorder called porphyria turcica, which can be lethal. Mothers who pass HCB to their infants through the placenta and breast milk had limited reproductive success including infant death. Human exposure is primarily from food.
  • Mirex, is used as an insecticide against ants and termites or as a flame retardant in plastics, rubber, and electrical goods. Mirex is one of the most stable and persistent pesticides, with a half-life of up to 10 years. Mirex is toxic to several plant, fish and crustacean species. Direct exposure does not appear to have injurious effects in humans, while classified as possible human carcinogen.contradiction Humans are exposed primarily through animal meat, fish, and wild game.
  • Toxaphene, an insecticide used on cotton, cereal, grain, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, as well as for tick and mite control in livestock. Widespread toxaphene use in the US and chemical persistence, with a half-life of up to 12 years in soil, results in residual toxaphene in the environment. Toxaphene is highly toxic to fish, inducing dramatic weight loss and reduced egg viability. Human exposure primarily results from food. While human toxicity to direct toxaphene exposure is low, the compound is classified as a possible human carcinogen.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – industrial and technical chemical as heat exchange fluids, in electrical transformers, and capacitors, and as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, and plastics. Persistence varies with degree of halogenation, with half-lives up 10 years. PCBs are toxic to fish at high doses, and associated with spawning failure at low doses. Human exposure occurs through food, and is associated with reproductive failure and immune suppression. Immediate effects of PCB exposure include pigmentation of nails and mucous membranes and swelling of the eyelids, along with fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Effects are transgenerational, as the chemical can persist in a mother’s body for up to 7 years, resulting in developmental delays and behavioral problems in her children.Food contamination has lead to large scale PCB exposure.
  • Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is probably the most infamous POP. It was widely used as insecticide during WWII to protect against malaria and typhus. After the war, DDT was used as an agricultural insecticide. In 1962, the American biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, describing the impact of DDT spraying on the US environment and human health. DDT’s persistence in the soil for up to 10–15 years after application has resulted in widespread and persistent DDT residues throughout the world including the arctic, even though it has been banned or severely restricted in most of the world. DDT is toxic to many organisms including birds where it is detrimental to reproduction due to eggshell thinning. DDT can be detected in foods from all over the world and food-borne DDT remains the greatest source of human exposure. Short-term acute effects of DDT on humans are limited, however long-term exposure has been associated with chronic health effects.specify
  • Dioxins are unintentional by-products of high-temperature processes, such as incomplete combustion and pesticide production. Dioxins are typically emitted from the burning of hospital waste, municipal waste, and hazardous waste, along with automobile emissions, peat, coal, and wood. Dioxins have been associated with several adverse effects in humans, including immune and enzyme disorders, chloracne, and are classified as a possible human carcinogen. In laboratory studies of dioxin effects an increase in birth defects and stillbirths, and lethal exposure have been associated with the substances. Food, particularly from animals, is the principal source of human exposure to dioxins.
  • Polychlorinated dibenzofurans are by-products of high-temperature processes, such as incomplete combustion after waste incineration or in automobiles, pesticide production, and polychlorinated biphenyl production. Structurally similar to dioxins, the two compounds share toxic effects. Furans persist in the environment for longspecify periods and are classified as possible human carcinogens. Human exposure to furans primarily results from food, particularly animal products.

Since 2001, this list has generally been accepted to include such substances as carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), certain brominated flame retardants, and some organometallic compounds such as tributyltin (TBT).citation needed Other additions to the initial 2001 Stockholm Convention list are as follows:78

  • Chlordecone, a synthetic chlorinated organic compound, primarily used as an agricultural pesticide. Chlordecone is highly persistent in the environment, toxic to aquatic organisms, and classified as a possible human carcinogen. Many countries have banned chlordecone sale and use, or intend to phase out stockpiles and wastes.
  • α-Hexachlorocyclohexane (α-HCH) and β-Hexachlorocyclohexane (β-HCH) are insecticides as well as unintentional by-products of lindane, resulting in large and unforeseen stockpiles of HCH isomers in the environment. α-HCH and β-HCH are highly persistent in the water of colder regions. α-HCH and β-HCH are classified as a possible human carcinogen and has been lined to adverse effects on wildlife and human health.
  • Hexabromodiphenyl ether (hexaBDE) and heptabromodiphenyl ether (heptaBDE) are main components of commercial octabromodiphenyl ether (octaBDE). Commercial octaBDE is highly persistent in the environment, whose only degradation pathway is through debromination and the production of bromodiphenyl ethers, which can increase toxicity.
  • Lindane (γ-hexachlorocyclohexane), a pesticide used as a broad spectrum insecticide for seed, soil, leaf, tree and wood treatment, and against ectoparasites in animals and humans (head lice and scabies). Lindane persists in the environment, bioaccumulates in food chains, and rapidly bioconcentrates. It is immunotoxic and has adverse reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals and aquatic organisms. Production of lindane unintentionally produces two other POPs α-HCH and β-HCH
  • Pentachlorobenzene (PeCB), is a pesticide, industrial chemical, and unintentional by-product produced during combustion, thermal, and industrial processes. PeCB has also been used in PCB products, dyestuff carriers, as a fungicide, a flame retardant, and a chemical intermediate. PeCB is persistent in the environment, highly bioaccumulative, with the potential for long-range environmental transport, moderately toxic to humane, while highly toxic to aquatic organisms.
  • Tetrabromodiphenyl ether (tetraBDE) and pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE) are industrial chemicals and the main components of commercial pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE). Commercial pentaBDE is highly persistent, bioaccumulative, with a high potential for long-range environmental transport. PentaBDE has been detected in humans in all regions of the world, with the potential for toxic effects in wildlife, including mammals.
  • Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), its salts and perfluorooctanesulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF) have been intentionally produced and are degradation products of related anthropogenic chemicals and are used for electric and electronic parts, fire fighting foam, photo-imaging, hydraulic fluids, and textiles. PFOS are extremely persistent, bioaccumulating, biomagnifying, and can bind proteins in the blood and liver.
  • Endosulfans are insecticides to control crop pests on coffee, cotton, rice and sorghum and soy, tsetse flies, ectoparasites of cattle. They are used as a wood preservative. Global use has been either banned or is intended to be phased out.when? Endosulfans are persistent in the atmosphere, sediments, and water, bioaccumulating, with the potential for long-range transport. Toxic to humans and aquatic and terrestrial organisms, linked to congenital physical disorders, mental retardation, and death.
  • Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) is a brominated flame retardant primarily used in thermal insulation in the building industry. HBCD is persistent, highly toxic and ecotoxic, with bioaccumulative and long-range transport properties, and has adverse effects on reproduction.

Chemical properties

POPs are characterized by low water solubility, high lipid solubility, semi-volatility, high molecular mass, and stability. This allows for bioaccumulation in fatty tissues of living organisms and slow metabolism, which confers the compound’s persistence and accumulation in food chains. Halogenation with chlorine, bromine, and fluorine and aromatic rings resists against hydrolysis; the greater number of chlorine substitutions/functional groups, the greater resistance to biological and photolytic degradation is associated with POPs stability and persistence.

Long-range transport

POPs enter the gas phase under certain environmental temperatures and volatize from soils, vegetation, and water bodies into the atmosphere9 , resisting breakdown reactions in the air, to travel long distances before being re-deposited. This results in accumulation of POPs in areas far from where they were used or emitted, specifically environments where POP's have never been introduced such as the Antarctica, and the Arctic circle. POPs can be present as vapors in the atmosphere or bound to the surface of solid particles. POPs have low solubility in water but are easily captured by solid particles, and are soluble in organic fluids (oils, fats, and liquid fuels). POPs are not easily degraded in the environment due to their stability and low decomposition rates.101112


Bioaccumulation of POPs is typically associated with the compounds high lipid solubility and ability to accumulate in the fatty tissues of living organisms for long periods of time. Persistent chemicals tend to have higher concentrations and are eliminated more slowly. Dietary accumulation or biomagnification of POPs highlights another characteristic of the compounds, to increase in chemical concentration with increasing trophic level in food webs, against the thermodynamic gradient. The natural capacity for animals gastrointestinal tract concentrate ingested chemicals, along with poorly metabolized and hydrophobic nature of POPs makes such compounds highly susceptible to biomagnification.1112131415

Additive and synergistic effects

It is hard to predict specific effects and the potential for health problems in experiments and studies performed in labs on POPs. Laboratory experiments most often test individual compounds. In the environment, however, organisms are exposed to a mixture of multiple POP compounds at the same time. It is difficult to test mixtures of different POPs in controlled experiments due to the cost and the lack of resources. To approximate the toxicity of a mixture of compounds to an organism in nature, the effects are assumed to be additive. That is, the effects of each individual compound are added together to approximate the overall magnitude of effects of the mixture as a whole. Sometimes, however, this is not alway the case. Mixtures of POPs, as with many other chemical mixtures, can sometimes produce synergistic effects. With synergistic effects, the toxicity of each compound is enhanced by the other compounds in the mixture. When put together, the effects can far exceed the approximated additive effects of the POP compound mixture. Thus, mixtures of POPs in nature can be more toxic to organisms than predicted in laboratory experiments.

Health effects

POP exposure may cause developmental defects, chronic illnesses, and death. Some are carcinogens per IARC, possibly including breast cancer.1 Many POPs are capable of endocrine disruption, within the reproductive system, the central nervous system or the immune system. People and animals are exposed to POPs mostly through their diet, occupationally, or while growing in the womb.1 For humans not exposed to POPs through accidental or occupational means, over 90% of exposure comes from animal product foods due to bioaccumulation in fat tissues and biomagnification up the food chain.In general, POP serum levels increase with age and tend to be higher in females than males.13

Studies have investigated the correlation between low level exposure of POPs and various diseases. In order to assess disease risk due to POPs in a particular location, government agencies may produce a human health risk assessment which takes into account the pollutants' bioavailability and their dose-response relationships.16

Endocrine disruption

The majority of POPs are known to disrupt normal functioning of the endocrine system, for example all of the dirty dozen are endocrine disruptors. Low level exposure to POPs during critical developmental periods of fetus, newborn and child can have a lasting effect throughout its lifespan. A 2002 studycitation needed synthesizes data on endocrine disruption and health complications from exposure to POPs during critical developmental stages in an organism's lifespan. The study aimed to answer the question whether or not chronic, low level exposure to POPs can have a health impact on the endocrine system and development of organisms from different species. The study found that exposure of POPs during a critical developmental time frame can produce a permanent changes in the organisms path of development. Exposure of POPs during non-critical developmental time frames may not lead to detectable diseases and health complications later in their life. In wildlife, the critical development time frames are in utero, in ovo, and during reproductive periods. In humans, the critical development timeframe is during fetal development.

Reproductive system

The same study in 2002citation needed with evidence of a link from POPs to endocrine disruption also linked low dose exposure of POPs to reproductive health effects. The study stated that POP exposure can lead to negative health effects especially in the male reproductive system, such as decreased sperm quality and quantity, altered sex ratio and early puberty onset. For females exposed to POPs, altered reproductive tissues and pregnancy outcomes as well as endometriosis have been reported.

Exposure during pregnancy

POP exposure during pregnancy is of particular concern to the developing fetus.

Transport across the placenta

A study about the transfer of POPs (14 organochlorine pesticides, 7 polychlorinated biphenyls and 14 polybromodiphenyl ether (PBDEs)) from Spanish mothers to their unborn fetus found that POP concentrations in serum from the mother were higher than from the umbilical cord and 50 placentas.17 Because transfer of the POPs from mother to fetus did not correspond with passive lipid-associated diffusion, authors suggested that POPs are actively transported across the placenta.17

Gestational weight gain and newborn head circumference

A Greek study from 2014 investigated the link between maternal weight gain during pregnancy, their PCB-exposure level and PCB level in their newborn infants, their birth weight, gestational age, and head circumference. The birth weight and head circumference of the infants was the lower, the higher POP levels during prenatal development had been, but only if mothers had either excessive or inadequate weight gain during pregnancy. No correlation between POP exposure and gestational age was found.18 A 2013 case-control study conducted 2009 in Indian mothers and their offspring showed prenatal exposure of two types of organochlorine pesticides (HCH, DDT and DDE) impaired the growth of the fetus, reduced the birthweight, length, head circumference and chest circumference.1920

Cardiovascular disease and cancer

POPs are lipophilic environmental toxins. They are often found in lipoproteins of organisms. A study published in 2014citation needed found an association between the concentration of POPs in lipoproteins and the occurrence of cardiovascular disease and various cancers in human beings. The higher the concentration of POPs found in lipoproteins, the higher the occurrence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Highly chlorinated polychlorinated biphenyls are specifically found in high concentrations in lipoproteins. Cardiovascular disease is shown to be more associated with higher concentrations of POPs in high density lipoproteins and cancer is shown to be more associated with higher concentrations of POPs in low density lipoproteins and very low density lipoproteins.21


There have been many recent studies assessing the connection between serum POP levels in individuals and instances of obesity. A study released in 2011citation needed found correlations between different POPs and obesity occurrence in individuals tested. The statistically significant findings from the study show that there is actually a negative correlation between various PCB congener serum levels and obesity in individuals tested. The study also showed a positive correlation between beta-hexachlorocyclohexane and various dioxin serum levels and obesity in individuals tested. Obesity was determined using the Body Mass Index (BMI). One proposed explanation in the study is that PCBs are very lipophilic, therefore they are easily stored and captured in the fat deposits in human beings. Obese individuals have higher amounts of fat deposits in their body, and thus more PCBs could be captured in the fat deposits leading to less PCBs circulating in blood serum. The study provides evidence demonstrating that the correlation between POP serum levels and obesity occurrence is more complicated than previously expected. The same study also noted a strong positive correlation between serum POP levels and age in all individuals in the experiment.22


A study from an article published in 2006citation needed revealed a positive correlation between POP serum levels and type II diabetes in individuals, after otherwhich? variables were adjusted for. The correlation proved stronger in younger, Mexican-American, and obese individuals. Individuals exposed to low doses of POPs throughout their lifetime had a higher chance for developing diabetes than individuals exposed to high concentrations of POPs for a short amount of time.23

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

State parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

The Stockholm Convention was adopted and put into practice by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on May 22, 2001. The UNEP decided that POP regulation needed to be addressed globally for the future. The purpose statement of the agreement is “to protect human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants.” As of 2014, there are 179 countries in compliance with the Stockholm convention. The convention and its participants have recognized the potential human and environmental toxicity of POPs. They recognize that POPs have the potential for long range transport and bioaccumulation and biomagnification. The convention seeks to study and then judge whether or not a number of chemicals that have been developed with advances in technology and science can be categorized as POPs or not. The initial meeting in 2001 made a preliminary list, termed the “dirty dozen,” of chemicals that are classified as POPs. As of 2014, the United States of America has signed the Stockholm Convention but has not ratified it. There are a handful of other countries that have not ratified the convention but most countries in the world have ratified the convention.

POPs in urban areas and indoor environments

Traditionally it was thought that human exposure to POPs occurred primarily through food, however indoor pollution patterns that characterize certain POPs have challenged this notion. Recent studies of indoor dust and air have implicated indoor environments as sources for human exposure via inhalation and ingestion. Furthermore significant indoor POP pollution seems to be the only solution to the route of exposure in countries where the trend is a high proportion of indoor life. Various studies have shown that in general indoor (air and dust) POP levels exceed outdoor (air and soil) POP concentrations. Human exposure to POPs due to indoor environment contamination is a new development in POP research, yet highly significant route of inquiry.324

See also


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