Within the context of current international initiatives on the control of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), an overview is given of the scientific knowledge relating to POP sources, emissions, transport, fate and effects. At the regional scale, improvements in mass balance models for well-characterised POPs are resulting in an ability to estimate their environmental concentrations with sufficient accuracy to be of help for some regulatory purposes. The relevance of the parameters used to define POPs within these international initiatives is considered with an emphasis on mechanisms for adding new substances to the initial lists. A tiered approach is proposed for screening the large number of untested chemical substances according to their long-range transport potential, persistence and bioaccumulative potential prior to more detailed risk assessments. The importance of testing candidate POPs for chronic toxicity (i.e. for immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption and carcinogenicity) is emphasised as is a need for the further development of relevant SAR (structure activity relationship) models and in vitro and in vivo tests for these effects. Where there is a high level of uncertainty at the risk assessment stage, decision-makers may have to rely on expert judgement and weight-of-evidence, taking into account the precautionary principle and the views of relevant stake-holders. Close co-operation between the various international initiatives on POPs will be required to ensure that assessment criteria and procedures are as compatible as possible.