by Danielle Knight

Washington, 4 Nov. 99 (IPS) -- Environmentalists joined the growing outcry against the powers of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Thursday and warned the trade body was undermining hard-won safeguards to protect public health and the environment against toxic substances.

Two new reports released Thursday condemned the perceived influence of corporate interests at the upcoming international trade negotiations of the WTO ministerial conference in Seattle, Washington on Nov 30-Dec 3.

"To trade or not to trade is not the question," said a report from the Basel Action Network and Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange, two Seattle-based groups who have worked to end the international trade and dumping of toxic waste.

Trade must have limits to ensure it does not harm people or ecosystems, they said. They alleged that WTO rules, as currently written, undermined beneficial trade controls on toxic chemicals and substances.

"The WTO represents a frightening gauntlet thrown down at the very pillars of our work for a toxics-free future," said the report, titled 'When Trade is Toxic.'

Both organisations said that the "Precautionary Principle," used to instill caution in policy makers regarding the licensing of toxic substances and chemicals, was "non-scientific" for the trade body and therefore could not be used as a basis to justify regulatory actions that conflict with trade rules.

The Precautionary Principle demanded the shifting of the burden of proof on those who would introduce new chemicals or substances, into the environment to prove that they were likely to be not harmful, rather than the other way around - which is the current standard at the WTO, said the 38-page report.

Because the WTO disregards the 'Precautionary Principle' the report warned that more challenges could be expected to domestic laws banning chemicals, like in 1997 when the US weakened its Clean Air Act regulations limiting gasoline contaminants that cause pollution after Venezuela successfully challenged them before the trade body.

"For too long we have granted chemicals, nuclear isotopes, and genetically modified organisms 'constitutional rights' - that is they are considered innocent until proven guilty," said the report.

Waiting until damage is substantially proven before action is taken, as currently employed under the international trade body, is "tantamount to running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects," the report said.

The WTO's dismissal of the 'Precautionary Principle' put numerous other public health protections at risk, according to a second study released Thursday by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which was once part of the Sierra Club.

In 'Trading Away Public Health,' the group said US pesticide safeguards for children, which required that extra protection be built into US pesticide standards where the scientific evidence was incomplete, could be easily challenged under existing trade rules.

"This extra protection is not based on definitive scientific evidence of harm from the particular pesticide, but rather on the lack of studies deemed necessary to decide whether the pesticide residues will be harmful to children," said Earthjustice.

'Trading Away Public Health' said the WTO further undermines restrictions designed to prevent toxic effects of certain production processes, since it prohibited discrimination between products based on how they were produced.

Under current WTO rules, "if the physical attributes of two products are the same, the one produced in a manner that depletes natural resources or pollutes the air and water must be treated the same as the one that does not cause such pollution," said Earthjustice.

Under such trade rules, the US government, on behalf of the American Electronics Association, said in early 1999 it would challenge the EU's proposed programme to minimize the environmental risks from toxic chemicals produced when electronic and electrical equipment, such as computers, are made.

The EU programme would phase out the use of certain toxic chemicals, mandate 70 percent of computer material be recycled or reused, and require electronic manufacturers be held responsible for the costs of recycling and disposal of waste at the end of the product's useful life.

By prohibiting products to be discriminated against on the basis of how they were produced, the WTO had "erected obstacles to toxics bans and standards and thereby threatens to stymie pollution prevention and public health protection strategies," said Earthjustice.

Reducing import tariffs on chemical products is high on the list of President Bill Clinton's priorities at the forthcoming trade talks at the end of this month.

But like forest protection advocates who worry that lower tariffs on wood products will fuel harmful logging, 'When Trade is Toxic' warned that lower prices on chemicals would increase demand which, in turn, would increase worldwide consumption of dangerous substances.

"Greater consumption of chemicals worldwide, means more chemicals ending up in the environment, in our food and in our bodies," it said.

While not all chemicals are hazardous, trade liberalisation would be sought for a number of substances which environmentalists consider harmful to health and the environment.

Some of these chemicals, such as tetraethyl lead and asbestos, were banned in developed countries and were "exported from countries like the United States and Canada to developing countries where they are responsible for much death, birth defects, cancer and other forms of dysfunction and disease," said 'When Trade is Toxic.'

The report also warned that the WTO may override international environmental agreements that regulate trade in toxics, including the Basel Convention ban on exporting hazardous wastes from industrialised nations to developing countries and the treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

While any WTO challenge of any multilateral environmental agreement had not been forthcoming, 'When Trade is Toxic' said powerful industry could use the trade body to fight treaties which threatened their bottom line.

According to report, both the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Council on Metals and the Environment, an industry association, have said they may challenge the Basel Convention, or its individual provisions, under the WTO as a trade barrier. (SUNS4545)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .