Multinational Monitor

MAR 2000
VOL 21 No. 3


George W. Bush: How Money Grows on the "Shrub"
by Andrew Wheat

Financing Disaster:
Canada's Export Development Corporation

by Aaron Freeman

Perlious Partnership:
The UN's Corporate Outreach Program

by Kenny Bruno

Top Political Party and Candidate Patrons
CRP and the Center for Public Integrity


The Buying of the President
An Interview with Charles Lewis


Behind the Lines

End Legalized Bribery

The Front
Biosafety Truce Reached - Big Tobacco Goes on Offense

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Review
Pandora's Posion

Names In the News


Book Review

Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health and a New Environmental Strategy
By Joe Thornton
MIT Press
Cambridge, MA
580 Pages; $34.95

Pandora's Poison is an indispensable reference for anyone concerned about toxic pollution -- whether related to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), endocrine disrupters, carcinogens, pesticides, incineration, dioxin, PCBs, ozone depletion, PVC or toxic byproducts in drinking water.

The book begins by examining the global spread of organochlorines. What once was once perceived as a local problem for distinct communities like Love Canal and Times Beach grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s into a problem confronting vast ecosystems such as the Great Lakes and the Baltic. As a result, organizations such as the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes and the American Public Health Association began the call for a phaseout of industrial chlorine chemistry in the early 1990s.

Now, these chemicals have come to be understood as a truly global threat. Currently, the United Nations is sponsoring international negotiations to phase-out POPs (persistent organic pollutants) -- a group of chemicals dominated by organochlorines, including pesticides and industrial chemicals and by-products such as PCBs and dioxin.

Organochlorines turn out to be inherently dangerous for three reasons: they're more toxic, more fat/oil soluble (making them accumulate in human bodies) and often more stable. Organochlorines have been linked to a spectrum of large-scale health damage in humans and wildlife, including declining sperm counts/semen quality, male developmental defects, pregnancy failure, endometriosis, cancer, sex hormone changes, birth defects, thyroid changes, heart disease, cognitive deficits and immune suppression. Some of these effects occur at very low doses -- equal to the levels now found in the environment.

The vast scale and variety of the damage resulting from what is now over 40 million tons a year of global industrial chlorine production should not be surprising since the very qualities that have made different organochlorines so useful as disinfectants, bleaches, plastics, flame retardants and refrigerants are what have also made them so hazardous. To argue that there is nothing special about the hazards of organochlorines, therefore, one would have to say there is nothing special about their utility, either.

Before Pandora's Poison was even published, The Chlorine Chemistry Council's Kip Howlett responded that Thornton "pushes a precautionary principle that is not workable" and "ignores the fact that we have regulatory programs in place based on risk-based principles."

Apparently Howlett had not yet read the book, because one of the book's main points of contention is that the United States does have a regulatory program in place that is based on risk-based principles, and it is not working. Woven throughout the book is a devastating critique of the current system of environmental management.

Today's environmental policies attempt to manage toxic pollution by permitting chemical production, use and release so long as discharges do not exceed a quantitative standard of "acceptable" contamination. This approach assumes that ecosystems have an "assimilative capacity" to absorb and degrade pollutants without harm. Borrowed from regulations which were intended for human and other kinds of waste, this assumption doesn't work for long-lived compounds that accumulate over time in the environment and in human bodies.

Another assumption is that organisms can accommodate some degree of chemical exposure with negligible consequence. But the old toxicological principle that the "dose makes the poison" effectively turns out to be false for some chemicals like dioxin, which can be toxic at exquisitely low-levels of exposure.

In practice, current regulations put no restraints on the production or use of chemicals, relying instead on pollution control devices to capture, treat and dispose of them after they are generated. This approach, Thornton argues, fails for four reasons: First, the product often is itself the poison. Many organochlorines (e.g. pesticides) are deliberately put into the environment. Second, pollution control devices merely shift chemicals from one medium to another -- e.g. from air emissions to landfills. Third, control technologies rarely perform as well as advertised. Finally, though the goal may be to reduce the quantity of emissions per product, so long as overall production of organochlorines increases, emissions will generally grow too, eventually overwhelming improvements in the rate of emissions per product. This problem is particularly acute when chemical production and consumption is viewed at the global level.

In contrast to the current "Risk Paradigm," Thornton poses a new regulatory framework which he calls the "Ecological Paradigm," which makes no attempts to calculate "safe" exposures. Instead, it continuously seeks to minimize the use of potentially toxic chemicals, reducing and ultimately eliminating environmental discharges of chemicals that may cause damage to health.

A central tenet of the Ecological Paradigm is the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle warns against waiting for proof of cause-and-effect linkages. But it is not sufficiently prescriptive. The Environmental Paradigm proposes three additional concepts to complement the precautionary principle and provide a framework for taking specific action:

  • Reverse Onus: placing the burden on those who would propose to make and use toxic chemicals to prove their safety first, much the same way that pharmaceuticals are regulated today;

  • Zero Discharge of substances that are persistent or which bioaccumulate; and

  • Clean Production: a conceptual and procedural approach that demands that all phases of a product or process's life cycle be designed with the objective of prevention or minimization of short- and long-term risks to human health and the environment.

Clean Production emphasizes solutions which examine the process upstream, where organochlorines can be substituted with another, cleaner process or material. For example, rather than enacting stricter air emissions regulations requiring that dry cleaners install vapor recovery machines for perchloroethylene, Clean Production would provide the mandate and incentives for dry cleaners to use either wet cleaning or newly emerging carbon dioxide technologies, eliminating the use of "perc" altogether.

Phasing out 11,000 organochlorines sounds like a daunting task. Pandora's Poison makes the useful suggestion to organize this vast number of substances into coherent product groups that are derived from common feedstocks or are used for similar purposes, such as pesticides, plastics or pharmaceuticals.

Looking at the industry in this way makes it easier to understand the structure of the chemical industry and its relationship to downstream users of chlorine and chlorinated products, as well as where the best opportunities for prevention exist. It also should help forestall the industry strategy of substituting one chemical for another (e.g. HCFCs for CFCs) when it is banned or even one product line for another (PVC -- vinyl -- is commonly assumed to make up for shrinking chlorine demands in the paper and solvent industries).

Within this framework, Pandora's Poison carefully reviews economically viable alternatives for every major use of chlorine:

  • Oxygen-based chemicals and alternative pulping techniques have allowed much of the pulp and paper industry to go totally chlorine-free (TCF). (The book itself is printed on totally chlorine-free paper). Industry analysts have calculated that state-of-the art effluent-free mills (which require taking chlorine entirely out of the process) can reduce operating costs by $35 per ton of pulp in the long run.

  • Ever since they were tied to ozone depletion, alternatives have been sought for chlorinated solvents and refrigerants (CFCs). Chlorinated chemicals used to clean equipment can be phased out with mechanical substitutes or less toxic chemicals. Propane-isobutane mixtures have been rapidly introduced in the domestic refrigeration market, garnering 80 percent of the European market by 1997 after being introduced just six years earlier. In Sweden, chlorinated solvents are slated for complete phaseout this year.

  • PVC, the biggest use of chlorine, can be substituted with traditional materials and new-generation chlorine-free plastics. Flexible vinyl applications are already rapidly being phased out of many applications (including toys, IV bags, food packaging and automobile interiors).

  • Three chemicals -- propylene chlorohydrin, phosgene and epichlorohydrin -- account for the vast majority of chlorine use for chemical intermediates (chemicals used to make other products). There are viable alternatives to each of these.

  • For many people, "water" is the first application that comes to mind for chlorine. Yet only a small fraction of chlorine (5 percent in the United States) is used to disinfect water. While the chlorine industry has been careful to frame this issue as a question of using chlorine or suffering a rash of diseases, the real choice is between chlorine and alternative disinfection systems. Slow sand filtration, ozone and UV treatments are already providing safe drinking water for millions throughout the world.

Pandora's Poison synthesizes and justifies a concrete proposal for change that solves the same massive problem it describes. In the tradition of Barry Commoner's writings on pollution prevention, Pandora's Poison is useful blueprint for action on toxic chemicals.

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