Eliminating toxic chemical threats - A new framework

There is an emerging intellectual and policy framework for addressing toxic chemical threats. It is a framework which focuses on pollution prevention rather than pollution control, the precautionary principle as a methodology for decision-making, the end of individual chemical risk assessment, and the need for democratic control of production decision.

by Gary Cohen

THE continued production, use and disposal of chlorinated chemicals is now being challenged by regulatory, legal and citizen actions around the world. Such actions are likely to increase in coming years as additional data about chlorine's widespread environmental, occupational and public health impacts become more widely discussed. At the heart of these challenges are the emerging frameworks of pollution prevention instead of pollution control, the precautionary principle as a methodology for decision making, the end of individual chemical risk assessment, and the need for democratic control of production decisions. The time is ripe for a broad alliance of the environmental health, environmental justice and labour movements to push for the elimination of chlorinated chemicals while at the same time ensuring a just transition for workers and communities dependent on chlorinated-chemical production.

A new framework

There is an emerging intellectual and policy framework for addressing toxic chemical threats that represents a dramatic departure from the pollution control strategy that the US government has pursued for the last 25 years. This new framework has four components:

* Pollution prevention instead of pollution control
The US government has fundamentally failed in reducing the occupational, environmental and public health threats of toxic chemicals because regulators have mistakenly assumed that exposure could be controlled by setting 'acceptable levels' of emissions. The government then tried to regulate industry's installation of pollution control equipment that achieved this 'acceptable level'. This strategy has resulted in industry installing expensive end-of-the-pipe pollution control technology that is largely ineffective, rather than investing in clean production technologies that eliminate use of toxic chemicals in the first place. The new paradigm envisions a vibrant and profitable 'clean production' economy that uses minimal amounts of dangerous chemicals and protects workers, the community and the environment. The path to this kind of economy is to eliminate the source of toxic exposure by eliminating the production and use of dangerous chemicals.

* The precautionary principle as a new methodology of decision making
The International Joint Commission (IJC) for the Great Lakes, a bi-national governmental body responsible for water quality in the Great Lakes ecosystem, has articulated a new approach to addressing toxic threats. The IJC's position embodies the principle that given the inherent complexities and limitations of evaluating chemicals in isolation of each other, in addition to the scientific uncertainties of proving causal relationships between specific chemicals and corresponding health effects, society should eliminate the production and release of chemicals that cannot be safely regulated.

The IJC identifies a class of chemicals called 'persistent toxic substances' that cannot be safely regulated. These include chemicals that 'cause death, disease, behavioural abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations, physiological or reproductive malfunctions or physical deformities in any organism or its offspring, or which can become poisonous after concentrating in the food chain'. This list also includes chemicals that bioaccumulate (become more concentrated as they move up the food chain), and chemicals that are persistent (with half-lives greater than eight weeks in any medium - water, air, sediment, soil or living things). If a chemical falls within these classifications, it should be eliminated. This approach does not require exhaustive causal proof of harm. Rather, decisions are based on the 'weight of evidence.' When there is reasonable documentation that certain chemicals are linked to certain effects, this evidence is sufficient to trigger preventative measures to eliminate that toxic source. Since virtually all chlorinated chemicals studied to date exhibit one or many of these characteristics, the IJC recommended in its 1992 report that these chemicals should be eliminated from the Great Lakes ecosystem.

* The end of individual chemical risk assessment
Standard government regulatory action to date has been based on a system of sophisticated guesswork called 'risk assessment', that evaluates chemicals in isolation of each other to determine the relative risk they pose to the environment and to health. This approach treats chemicals as innocent until proven guilty and has allowed the continued production and use of thousands of dangerous chemicals despite their destructive impacts. This approach has effectively blocked preventative regulations for years.

Approximately 70,000 different chemicals are now in commercial use with nearly six trillion pounds produced annually in the US. More than 80% of these chemicals have never been screened to learn whether they cause cancer, much less tested to see if they harm the nervous system, the immune system, the endocrine system or the reproductive system. The current US approach is also not based on real life exposures since people and animals are not exposed to one chemical in isolation, but rather are exposed to a dizzying array of toxic chemicals.

A preventive and precautionary approach seeks to shift the burden of proof onto the chemical manufacturers to prove that a chemical is not hazardous to human health or the environment before it is introduced to commercial use, rather than wait for massive injury before any protective action is taken.

* Democratic control over production decisions
Given the dramatic global health and environmental consequences of continued toxic chemical use, society must question whether we should continue to leave decisions about chemical production and use in the hands of private corporations, which have demonstrated in innumerable cases their propensity to place private profit far above protections for workers, the community or the environment. Especially in the area of toxic chemicals, it is common for corporations to conduct their own research and then bury it if it shows that a particular chemical product will cause harm.

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered an amnesty to companies that disclosed internal toxicological research that had not been made public to date. Eleven thousand different studies were submitted by more than 120 companies, many of them with damaging information about chemical products in commercial use. Similarly, companies engage in 'junk science' on a routine basis to show that a particular chemical is not harmful and does not merit restrictive regulation. In case after case, industry works to protect its market share, despite significant evidence that its products may be killing people.

Nor can production decisions be left in the hands of government regulators. The past few decades have clearly demonstrated that corporate interests have poisoned the political and regulatory process, while workers, communities and the environment have all suffered significant harm. The US government has for the most part protected the interests of the polluters against the interests of working people and the environment.

In the new approach to toxics, workers and communities will need to assert not only the right to know about toxic chemicals, but also the right to participate in decisions about their continued production and use. Without exercising this right, there is no way for workers to protect their long-term interests and their health.

Persistent toxic substances

The conceptual framework described above is the cornerstone of both national and international efforts to address chlorine chemistry. Among those efforts are four unique but connected initiatives to restrict the uses of chlorine chemicals:

* The IJC of the Great Lakes acknowledges that chlorine is toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative.
Further, it recognises that virtually all chlorinated compounds that have been studied exhibit a wide range of serious health effects such as endocrine disruption, developmental impairment, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, infertility, immuno-suppression and cancer. Based on the weight of this data, the IJC has recommended that industrial uses of chlorine be phased out of use in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

* The American Public Health Association (APHA), the country's oldest public health association, has passed two resolutions in the last three years advocating the elimination of chlorinated chemicals.
In Resolution #9304, APHA stated that the 'only feasible and prudent approach to eliminating the release and discharge of chlorinated organic chemicals and consequent exposure is to avoid the use of chlorine and its compounds in manufacturing processes.' In a resolution passed in November 1996, APHA called for the phaseout of PVC (a widely used chlorinated chemical) from the health care industry.

* The United Nations Environment Programme is spearheading a global treaty process that will create a mechanism for phasing out persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
The first 12 chemicals on the list for phaseout are all chlorinated chemicals. Many of these chemicals are pesticides that have been banned in the US and other countries, but are still produced and used in others. Dioxin, one of the 12 priority chemicals, is created as an unintentional by-product of production, use and disposal processes involving chlorinated chemicals. Environmentalists and some researchers are claiming that because dioxin creation is a necessary by-product of the PVC lifecycle, phasing out dioxin will necessitate the phaseout of PVC, the most important product of the chlorine industry. Dioxin creation is also associated with the bleaching process in pulp and paper production, in the incineration of solid and medical waste and in oil refinery production processes.

* The US environmental health and justice movement is developing a comprehensive strategy to phase out the uses and dangerous waste disposal of chlorinated chemicals across a wide array of industrial sectors.
These include health care, pulp and paper production, electronics, oil refineries, agriculture, solid waste incineration, medical waste incineration, PVC production and uses, chlorinated solvents used in dry-cleaning, and military uses and disposal of chlorinated chemicals. There are citizen campaigns organised around many of these industrial sectors. The Health Care Without Harm campaign, which is targeting chlorinated chemical use in the health care sector, has the endorsement of several national labour unions, including the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), California Nurses Association and the American Nurses Association. The environmental movement has been careful to avoid calling for the phaseout of chlorine in disinfecting drinking water and in pharmaceuticals, since there are not widely accepted alternatives to these uses and together, they account for less than 4% of all chlorine use.

Evidence mounts

There are compelling reasons why the debate about the phaseout of chlorinated chemicals will intensify in the next few years:

* Dioxin toxicity and exposure is much worse than scientists and policymakers previously believed.
EPA documents show that daily doses of dioxin in the general population are close to 300 times higher than the 'safe' threshold for cancer set by EPA, while breast-feeding children are getting at least 10 times more exposure than adults. That translates into 3,000 times the 'safe' threshold. The World Health Organisation recently classified dioxin as a Class I known human carcinogen. The EPA also estimates in its 1994 Dioxin Reassessment that the average level of dioxin in all Americans is 'at or approaching levels' where we can expect to see a variety of health effects. Some of the health effects linked with dioxin exposure in human and animal studies include cancer, endometriosis, testicular atrophy, increased miscarriages and birth defects, damage to the immune system, neurological damage, alterations in hormone function and a host of other problems.

* There is a great deal of research and debate about the ability of certain chemical compounds to cause endocrine disruption at critical stages of foetal and childhood development.
This kind of disruption fundamentally challenges current policy assumptions that there is a 'safe threshold' for exposure to toxic chemicals. It also challenges the regulatory paradigm of the last quarter century, which has evaluated chemicals as to their ability to cause cancer. Current research suggests that at minute doses, some toxic chemicals can have devastating effects on the reproductive, developmental and immunological systems of the offspring of many species, including humans. Half of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals identified so far are chlorinated chemicals.

* The public health crisis related to environmental contamination is reaching dramatic proportions.
Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children under 14 years in the US. Breast cancer affects one in eight women. Endometriosis, literally unheard of 50 years ago, now affects five million women in Canada and the US. Other forms of cancer are also rising. Research suggests that sperm counts are dropping in some industrialised countries. Research conducted in New York has shown behavioural abnormalities in children whose mothers ate Great Lakes fish prior to pregnancy. These and other findings require us to question the wisdom of exposing another generation to such toxins.

There are initiatives happening on the international and national levels aimed at restricting the production, use and dangerous disposal of chlorinated chemicals. These efforts are likely to increase over the next decade due to a combination of escalating health effects, new research on endocrine disruption and vigorous broad-based citizen action campaigns. We must develop a broad alliance working for these changes that includes environmental health and justice forces and labour to push for a transition away from a toxic, chemically-addicted economy to a saner, healthier, more sustainable world. (Third World Resurgence No. 90/91, Feb-March 1998)

The above article is reproduced (without footnotes) from the Global Pesticide Campaigner (Vol. 7, No.4). Gary Cohen is Co-Coordinator for Health Care Without Harm, an international campaign designed to reform the pollution practices of the health care industry. He can be contacted at 41 Oakview Terrace, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; phone (617) 524-6018; fax (617) 524-7021; email