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Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

What are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)?

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a group of toxic chemicals that don’t break down easily in the environment. They can be intentionally produced and used in agriculture, disease and pest control, manufacturing, or industry. They can also be unintentionally produced from some industrial processes and from waste incineration, backyard trash burning, cigarette smoke, and vehicle exhaust.

POPs can travel regionally and around the world. They bioaccumulate in the fat tissue of humans and animals, biomagnify in food chains, and are persistent in the environment.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international treaty to protect human health and the environment from POPs. In 2001, it originally covered the 12 POPs of greatest concern, called the “dirty dozen:” aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, endrin, furans, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, PCBs, and toxaphene. Another 16 additional chemicals were added to the treaty in 2017.

See also: Trash Factories Food and Cooking Drinking Water Air Pollution Agriculture Birth Defects Cancer Reproductive Health

Where are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) found?

POPs are found everywhere in the world in measurable amounts.

  • Food – fish, shellfish, or wild foods in which POPs have bioaccumulated
  • Air – indoors and outdoors, cigarette and secondhand smoke, and vehicle exhaust
  • Consumer products – pesticides, insecticides, cigarettes, and some paints

How can I be exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)?

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • Swallowing food or water contaminated with POPs

Inhalation (breathing)

  • Breathing indoor or outdoor air contaminated with POPs, vehicle exhaust, or cigarette and secondhand smoke

Skin contact

  • Touching products made with POPs

What happens when I am exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)?

Exposure to certain POPs can cause various effects:

  • Greater susceptibility to disease
  • Contaminated breast milk
  • Damage to the immune, neurological, and reproductive systems
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Decreased comprehension
  • Birth defects
  • Cancer
  • Death

Who is at risk for exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)?

  • Subsistence fishers and hunters
    • Fish, shellfish, and wild foods that are locally obtained may have higher levels of POP contamination. 
  • Women and men of child-bearing age
    • Exposure to POPs can harm human reproductive systems and a developing fetus.
  • Children and the elderly
    • Sensitive populations are more vulnerable to POPs.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to perchloroethylene , contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you use pesticides or insecticides in your home or garden?
  • Do you eat fatty foods with high concentrations of POPs?
  • Do you eat large amounts of fish, shellfish, or wild foods that are locally obtained or high in fat?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Do you, or does anyone in your household, smoke tobacco products?
  • How frequently are you exposed to vehicle exhaust or gas stations?
  • Do you live near a busy highway?
  • Choose lean meats and fish over animal foods with high fat content.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight since POPs are stored in fat tissue.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Limit your time near idling cars, trucks, or buses.
  • Routinely test your well water for POPs.
  • If your well water has high levels of POPs, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If your well water contains POPs above EPA’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking, or install an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.

Don’t let children play near gas stations, idling cars, or busy highways.

Additional Resources

  • Food Safety. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
    World Health Organization
    Webpages on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including a background summary, information on biomonitoring of human milk for POPs, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins in salmon, toxic equivalency factors (TEFs) for dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, as well as links to related resources.
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants: A Global Issue, A Global Response
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), effects of these toxic chemicals on human health and the environment, domestic and global efforts to address these pollutants, and links to additional resources.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

Smog City
Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District
An interactive air pollution simulator that shows how individual choices, environmental factors, and land use contribute to air pollution. 
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