Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tracking down pollutants in Mongolia

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is working with the government of Mongolia to get rid of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals used by industry which pose a health risk to humans and about which there is little awareness.

Typically present in transformer oils and electrical equipment such as high voltage switches and circuit breakers, PCBs have been used worldwide for many decades. It was only in the early 1970s that scientists learned that exposure to PCBs damages the immune and reproductive systems, affects reproduction, harms the skin, liver and gastrointestinal tract, and can also lead to cancer.

Workers and technical staff in diverse industries are usually unaware of the highly toxic nature of PCBs and often work in direct contact with them. Furthermore, because they are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), these substances resist degradation and travel by air, water and migratory species across international borders, affecting the whole globe.

Seeking to reduce or eliminate the release of persistent organic pollutants into the environment, since 2004 numerous countries have adopted the Stockholm Convention, a treaty that assists and legally binds countries to take measures against POPs. Among these was Mongolia, which in 2004 ratified the Stockholm Convention and prepared a national implementation plan that reviewed particular POPs issues and developed detailed strategies and action plans. Mongolia’s implementation plan identified PCBs as one of the top priorities in managing persistent organic pollutants. 

Tracking PCBs down is no easy business. With the financial support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNIDO started working with Mongolia back in 2008, to support it with acquiring the necessary capacities to manage PCB-containing equipment in an environmentally sound way. This has entailed supporting the country with developing a regulatory framework, equipping laboratories, training staff, developing standards for analyzing PCBs, creating an inventory of all the PCB-containing equipment throughout the country and creating a system to monitor their status. 

It has also required the establishment of a plant to decontaminate transformer oils and safely dispose of PCBs, which uses the most appropriate non-combustion technologies. Out of the approximate 2,300 tonnes of PCBs that UNIDO estimates currently exist in Mongolia, this plant seeks to treat over 1,000 tonnes in the next one and a half years. After the UNIDO project is over, its staff will be both qualified and equipped to decontaminate the remainder.

UNIDO is also supporting Mongolia with the revision of its national implementation plan to include POPs recently added to the Stockholm Convention. Thanks to UNIDO´s work and the GEF’s financial assistance, PCBs will no longer be a priority for Mongolia.

By Amalia Berardone
Posted July 2013


Further reading:

UNIDO's recommended reading on POPs

Why boys are turning into girls – The telegraph

High levels of PCB tied to defective sperm in infertile men – Environmental Health News

Polychlorinated Biphenyls: Human Health Aspects – World Health Organization

Mongolia's National Implementation Plan (NIP) (2006)

Concerned about your exposure? Get tested with the PCBs Profile


For more information please contact:

Adegboyega Ajani
Industrial Development Officer
UNIDO Regional Office in China