Worldwatch Paper 153 Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals

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This page contains two articles: Worldwatch Paper 153, and Detoxifying Terrorism.

Worldwatch is pleased to announce the publication of Worldwatch Paper 153, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals by Anne Platt McGinn. The paper highlights the dangers of some chemicals in even very small doses, the widespread distribution of these chemicals around the world, and how we can "detoxify" the economy without crippling production.

The press release attached below describes the paper's principal findings.

The paper is also available in print for $5.00 (plus $4 shipping and handling,$5 in Canada, $8.00 in all other countries). Discounts for multiple orders are available.

To order the printed version, you can:

1. Call our toll-free number, (800) 555-2028 and order by credit card.

2. Send your order by fax to 202-296-7365.

3. Send your order by email to wwpub@worldwatch.org.

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Press Release for Worldwatch Paper 153
                                                              

STEPPING OFF THE TOXIC TREADMILL


Synthetic chemical pollutants that are poisoning both people and wildlife could be largely eliminated without disrupting the economy, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based environmental research organization.  Evidence from three sectors that are major sources of these pollutants-paper manufacturing, pesticides, and PVC plastics-shows that non-toxic options are available at competitive prices in today's markets.

"Poisonous products are so embedded in our lives, it's easy to think that we can't do without them," said Anne Platt McGinn, author of  Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals. "Not only are we harming ourselves, we're paying to do it. We don't need to be exposed."

In the report, McGinn analyzes the available alternatives in each sector:

* In the paper manufacturing industry, 94 percent of the world's bleached paper is made using chlorine-a  process that spews out dioxin and hundreds of other dangerous organochlorines into water, soil and the paper itself.  Chlorine-free technology, which is significantly cheaper in the long run, has been available for ten years, but has been slow to be adopted.

* Polyvinylchoride (PVC) has become the second most common plastic on the planet, with an estimated 250 million tons in use. The entire cycle of manufacturing, consumption, and disposal of PVC throws off enormous quantities of toxic byproducts, yet there is a substitute for virtually every use to which PVC is put.

* Farmers will use 2.5 million tons of pesticides on this year's crops, pesticides that are 10-100 times more potent than formulations used just 25 years ago.  A growing number of farmers, however, are adopting integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.  These methods, which in many cases reduce costs and increase crop yields, use a combination of natural pest control methods, with limited use of pesticides as a last resort.

In December, 120 nations will convene in South Africa under the auspices of the United Nations to conclude a treaty that will greatly restrict a dozen of the most notorious chemical culprits known today, including nine pesticides, two industrial byproducts (dioxins and furans) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  Collectively, these chemicals fall into a class called POPs-persistent  organic pollutants-a group of highly toxic, long-lived, bioaccumulative chemicals.

"The treaty is a significant milestone," said McGinn, "but we are dealing with an industry that is innovative when it comes to producing new chemicals. On the other hand, the industries that make or use these chemicals are conservative when it comes to altering basic industrial design.  Manufacturers have already created tens of thousands of chemical compounds and are introducing three new chemicals a day.  The treaty's 'end-of-pipe' solutions are necessary, but we need to do far more."

The harmful effects of long-lasting compounds may not emerge for years, sometimes generations after the initial exposure. And even then, it is very difficult to find a 'smoking gun'. Scientists are only now discovering that many of these chemicals cause irreversible damage in people and animals at levels that were dismissed as inconsequential by the experts less than a decade ago.

 The catalog of the destructive effects of POPs is long and growing, from cancer and reproductive health effects to learning disorders and reduced immunity. People receive about 90 percent of their total intake of these compounds from foods of animal origin.  Something as common as a McDonald's Big Mac carries 30 percent of the World Health Organization's recommendation for daily dioxin intake.

New studies are shedding light on the potential health hazards from PVC. Phthalates, a group of chemicals that are mixed into PVC to add flexibility, continuously leak out of the material and into the surrounding environment. Children absorb these compounds when they suck on toys or crawl on vinyl flooring.  Swedish researchers recently reported that male workers in PVC plants have a risk of developing a form of testicular cancer - seminoma - that is six times that of the general population.
 
McGinn argues that cost-effective, workable substitutes exist for the bulk of PVC's current uses.  In construction, where 60 percent of PVC is used, replacements in siding, pipes, cable insulation, flooring, and window frames include non-chlorinated plastics and modified, traditional materials like aluminum, wood, and ductile iron.  Some communities now prohibit PVC from transportation, building, and infrastructure projects.

Paper production has long been recognized as a source of toxic pollutants, but some innovative companies within the industry have set a new industrial standard, designing toxics out of production altogether.  A growing share of manufacturers have switched their bleaching processes to oxygen, hydrogen, and ozone-based methods, which do not use chlorine, and therefore do not produce toxic organochlorines like dioxin.

In agriculture, proven alternatives are available. Growing ranks of farmers are going completely pesticide-free, profiting from consumers who now spend $22 billion a year on organic products.

Simply requiring companies to pay attention to their toxic releases can produce large reductions. In 1989, the state of Massachusetts began requiring major chemical users to produce a detailed toxics use reduction plan, with no legal obligation to implement any of the identified steps. Nevertheless, some 80 percent of the 1,000 companies with plans have carried them out. In the process, they have saved a total of $15 million in operating costs, while increasing production by one-third. On-site emissions at such facilities were down 80 percent between 1990 and 1997.

Under current regulations, high risk chemicals are treated as innocent until proven guilty. McGinn calls for governments to change this presumption and adopt the precautionary principle in its place.  This principle states that in the face of scientific uncertainty, the prudent stance is to restrict or even prohibit an activity that may cause long-term or irreversible harm. 

"Adopting the precautionary principle is a way to take out an insurance policy against our own ignorance," said McGinn.  "We rarely understand environmental risks until after the damage is done, as we've seen over and over with POPs. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof to the industry, requiring them to prove that the risks are not unreasonable."

-END-



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NEWS FROM THE WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE
Comment from the Worldwatch Institute

Breaking News: 15 November 2001, Strasbourg, France: Despite heavy opposition from the chemicals industry, the European Parliament supported a measure to overhaul EU chemicals policy, marking a significant step toward reducing unnecessary risks.  The Parliament voted to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives by 2020; label consumer products containing toxic chemicals; lower the safety threshold for human health to consider the effects of chemicals on young and unborn children; and subject high-volume chemicals to greater scrutiny in terms of health effects. 


Detoxifying Terrorism
November 19, 2001

Comment by Anne Platt McGinn,
Worldwatch Institute
 
Heightened national security concerns have renewed interest in our vulnerabilities to toxic chemicals, a health threat that has faced Americans for decades. In the U.S., around 850,000 industrial facilities routinely use hazardous and extremely hazardous chemicals , according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, creating a plethora of health and environmental problems even when the facilities are working normally.
   
Post September 11, these facilities are potential sitting ducks for terrorists.  Bombing any one of them could disrupt local and national economies, cripple public safety, and spew untold amounts of poisonous chemicals into the environment.
 
Our exposure to potential terrorist attacks on chemical facilities is alarming. But even without any new acts of terrorism, these facilities were already systematically damaging people's health and well-being.  In 1999, the latest year for which there are complete figures, the EPA reports that U.S. industrial facilities released 7.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals during production and disposal into the air and water.

And this total is far from complete: Only large manufacturers are required to report; the current list of 650 chemicals does not cover all toxic chemicals or sources; and releases during routine use are not included.  Moreover, many of these compounds interfere with the normal biological functioning of species in ways we have only begun to identify, let alone fully comprehend. We have no basic health and environmental data for 71 percent of the most widely used chemicals in the United States today.

In addition, every year, thousands of workers die in industrial accidents caused by toxics. Between 1987 and 1996, more than 2,500 people were killed each year in chemical accidents at industrial plants or during transport, according to the U.S. Chemical Health and Safety Investigation Board.
 
In the aftermath of September 11, many of these chemical facilities are now under heightened security, as are the nation's transportation systems, military sites, and government properties.  Better security is necessary, but in the long-term, our strategy should be to minimize our use of toxic chemicals altogether, and the sooner the better. 

Innovative companies, business leaders, and public authorities worldwide have proven that many toxic chemicals are simply unnecessary, and that phasing them out with safer substitutes or with redesigned industrial processes saves money, is healthier for workers and the public, and reduces potential domestic targets.
 
Companies from IBM to Motorola have significantly reduced their use of chlorinated solvents in cleaning operations, turning to water-based washes instead.  Toy manufacturers have phased out PVC plastic, to protect children from absorbing harmful chemical additives known as phthalates.  The American Hospital Association has pledged to eliminate all mercury-containing wastes by 2005. Burning these wastes releases potent toxins that damage the nervous system. 

In a more systematic approach, Massachusetts passed a law in 1989 requiring manufacturers to examine their use of toxic chemicals and prepare reports on alternatives.  Although the law says nothing about adopting these alternatives, some 80 percent of companies followed their own advice and reduced toxic inputs by 24 percent, while increasing production at the same time.
 
There is also a booming business in reducing the toxicity of manufacturing by producing goods entirely from renewable resources, rather than the current mix of toxic inputs.  In the United States, million tons of industrial and consumer materials-including paints, plastics, and detergents-are now produced from crops, rather than chemicals.  Bio-based products now account for more than 30 percent of the U.S. market in adhesives, surface cleaning agents, and additives in plastics.  Last year, Dow Chemical and Cargill (an international food and agricultural company) broke ground on the world's first manufacturing facility that will make plastic from corn sugar, rather than petroleum.
 
Since September 11, there have been many suggestions about how to make the country less vulnerable to terrorism.  At the very least, funding the research and development of safer alternatives and cleaner manufacturing processes should be an integral part of any plan to reduce our vulnerability to terrorism.

-end-

Anne Platt McGinn is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based environmental research organization. She is the author of Worldwatch Paper 153, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Hazardous Chemicals.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Niki Clark, Communications, Tel: 202-452-1992 ext. 517;  Email:
nclark@worldwtch.org
Anne Platt McGinn, Senior Researcher; Tel: 401-861-8031; Email:
amcginn@worldwatch.org


OTHER WORLDWATCH PAPERS by Anne Platt McGinn:
Worldwatch Paper #145, Safeguarding the Health of Oceans
Worldwatch Paper #142, Rocking the Boat: Conserving Fisheries and Protecting Jobs
Worldwatch Paper #129, Infecting Ourselves: How Environmental and Social Disruptions Trigger Disease. 

For copies of these Worldwatch Papers, visit the Worldwatch web site at:
www.worldwatch.org


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