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HELCOM actions on hazardous substances

Baltic ringed seal© Metsähallitus.jpg
Baltic ringed seals. Photo © Metsähallitus
HELCOM's objective with regard to hazardous substances is to prevent pollution of the convention area by continuously reducing discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances towards the target of their cessation by the year 2020, with the ultimate aim of achieving concentrations in the environment near background values for naturally occurring substances and close to zero for man-made synthetic substances. This objective was adopted within HELCOM Recommendation 19/5 in March 1998.

The Recommendation contains a list of numerous substances of concern, from which HELCOM selected 42 hazardous substances for immediate priority action. These include pesticides and biocides such as lindane and pentachlorophenol, metals and metal compounds such as mercury and lead, and industrial substances including short-chained chlorinated paraffins and nonylphenol.

How is this objective implemented?

HELCOM has compiled available data on sources, pathways, markets and the legal situation relating to selected hazardous substances, in order to assess the exposure situation and identify suitable cost-effective measures.  Subsequent guidance documents on mercury, cadmium, short-chained chlorinated paraffins, nonylphenol and nonylphenolethoxylates, dioxins and PCBs have been produced to help policy makers to choose the most efficient instruments and measures to eliminate the emissions, discharges and losses of these hazardous substances.  In order to address identified important sources of hazardous substances HELCOM Contracting Parties agreed to update HELCOM strategy for hazardous substances and this work has started within Land-based Pollution Group (HELCOM LAND), as well as to revise specific requirements for some of the major sources, e.g. landfills, waste handling and certain industries.

In order to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea in a more holistic way, HELCOM adopted the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) in November 2007, introducing an ecosystem based approach to the management of human activities in the Baltic Sea region. With the adoption of the plan, HELCOM Contracting Parties committed themselves to e.g. work towards the goal to achieve a Baltic Sea with life undisturbed by hazardous substances. The goal is further defined by the following four ecological objectives:

  • Concentrations of hazardous substances close to natural levels

  • All fish safe to eat

  • Healthy wildlife

  • Radioactivity at pre-Chernobyl level

The action plan selected 11 hazardous substances/substance groups of priority concern, with corresponding indicators and targets, acknowledging the possible need for revision of the list and the actions in the future as more information becomes available. Amongst other actions agreed upon in the plan, Contracting Parties agreed to start to work for strict restrictions on the use of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), nonylphenol/nonylphenolethoxylates (NP/NPEs), and short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) in the whole Baltic Sea catchment area of the Contracting States.

1_tinweb[1].jpgThe focus of the work in HELCOM on hazardous substances, at least in the nearest future, is to ensure that existing requirements are implemented. A HELCOM project is assisting Contracting States to establish national programmes that implement the hazardous substance related actions identified by the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan. HELCOM has already developed a strategy for data collection on the occurrence of hazardous substances in markets and in use in the Baltic Sea region, with particular focus on Russia, and has been collecting and assessing available information on the use, inputs to the Baltic Sea, and occurrence in the marine environment, of nine hazardous substances or substance groups.  A thematic assessment is under preparation, using indicators identified in the BSAP to assess the effectiveness of measures taken towards reaching the ecological objectives defined in the BSAP.

In a HELCOM Screening project the occurrence of nine selected hazardous substances in eastern Baltic marine environment (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia) is being studied (see project description for details). The project will not only promote capacity building in the region, but will also assist in the implementation of hazardous substance related actions in the BSAP.

In addition to many existing HELCOM Recommendations related to hazardous substance, HELCOM Contracting Parties recently adopted HELCOM Recommendation 28E/8 concerning environmentally friendly practices for the reduction and prevention of emissions of dioxins and other hazardous substances from small-scale combustion. During 2008, HELCOM will develop specific efficiency requirements and emission limit values for small scale combustion appliances.

The BSAP also reiterates HELCOM’s commitment to contribute to work on hazardous substances in other international fora. HELCOM will provide coherent input from the Contracting States, where possible based on a common HELCOM position, especially as regards the updating of lists of priority/candidate substances and substances to be evaluated, e.g. under the EU REACH, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants to the UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Basic principles for developing HELCOM measures

leatherprocessingweb[1].jpgHELCOM has adopted basic principles for developing HELCOM measures with regard to hazardous substances. With the EU enlargement and development of new EU measures, there is a reduced need for corresponding HELCOM measures. There remain, nevertheless, continuing needs for identifying the specific problems of the Baltic marine environment and reviewing whether measures by the various organisations (Global organisations, EU, HELCOM or national) adequately cover the general obligations of the Helsinki Convention and the HELCOM objective with regard to the cessation target for hazardous substances by 2020 in the whole catchment area. Particular care should be taken, that the interests of all HELCOM Contracting Parties are taken into account. This might generate the need for HELCOM to adopt own measures.

The basic steps for taking action in HELCOM are:

1.      Identification of threats

2.      Identification of fields of action and the need for measures

3.      Screening the coverage of existing international and national provisions

4.      Deciding whether to develop measures at international, regional or national level

More details are found in the document “Basic principles for developing HELCOM measures for hazardous substances”, which was adopted by the 25th meeting of the Helsinki Commission in 2004. The document also describes when identified needs for measures should be communicated to other international fora where addressing the problem is more adequate than in HELCOM.


  • The loads of many substances have been reduced by at least 50% since the late 1980s - mainly due to the effective implementation of environmental legislation, the substitution of hazardous substances with harmless or less hazardous substances, and technological improvements. In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia, reductions have been mainly due to fundamental socio-economic changes.

  • The 26 pesticides selected for immediate priority action either are no longer in use, have never been used, or have even been banned within the HELCOM region. But one serious problem that remains is that in some countries various obsolete pesticides still remain in temporary storage awaiting suitable disposal.

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are no longer produced or used in new ways. Following an analysis of the legislative situation throughout the Baltic region, and the current uses, stockpiles and releases of PCBs measures have been proposed to ensure their safe handling and to reduce releases of PCBs from existing equipment.

  • HELCOM has compiled a report about the specific conditions in the Baltic focusing on various physical, chemical and biological features which could increase the vulnerability of Baltic marine ecosystems to man-made chemicals. The report also identifies socio-economic factors which might result in hazardous substances being used or traded in ways that significantly differ from practice within the EU. These specific conditions should be taken into account when new substances are selected for priority action.

  • HELCOM has developed a strategy on Downstream User Approach. It is considered an appropriate instrument to investigate the occurrence of priority hazardous substances on the national market, without setting up intensive monitoring.

For futher information about hazardous substances, see the list of publications under HELCOM LAND



Last updated: 12 August 2008