How chemical industry plans to defend chlorine

Wednesday, July 17, 1996

By Peter Montague

In late 1993 the Governing Council of the American Public Health Association unanimously approved Policy Statement 9304, urging US industry to stop using the chemical chlorine. APHA is a professional society, founded in 1872, representing all disciplines and specialties in public health. It is the heart of the US public health establishment.

In nature, chlorine never appears in a free state, but is always combined with other elements, usually in common table salt (sodium chloride).

Around 1900, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical, split common salt to make commercially valuable sodium hydroxide, releasing, as an unwanted by-product, the highly toxic green gas, free chlorine. Dow (a chemistry teacher) soon began combining chlorine with other elements, thus creating "chlorine chemistry", giving rise to solvents, pesticides and all manner of other useful, toxic chlorinated compounds, of which there now about 15,000 in commercial use.

In Policy Statement 9304, one of the USA's premier scientific and medical associations is asking industry to change a fundamental way of doing business. APHA recognised two exceptions: the pharmaceutical industry and disinfection of public water supplies. But all other uses of chlorine as an industrial feedstock should be phased out, APHA urged.

The APHA explained: "... virtually all chlorinated organic [carbon-containing] compounds that have been studied exhibit at least one of a wide range of serious toxic effects such as endocrine dysfunction, developmental impairment, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction and infertility, immunosuppression, and cancer, often at extremely low doses ...".

The APHA said, in effect: we can't study all the many possible toxic effects of 15,000 individual chlorinated chemicals. Therefore, based on the weight of the evidence, we should assume all chlorinated chemicals are dangerous and we should avoid all exposure to them.

Furthermore, the APHA said, because we cannot avoid releases (and therefore exposure) whenever we make these compounds, the only way to prevent exposure is to stop making chlorinated compounds.

IJC study

The chlorine industry had received an equally severe blow when, a year earlier, the International Joint Commission (IJC) formally recommended to the governments of the US and Canada that the use of chlorine as an industrial feedstock be phased out.

The IJC was created by treaty in 1909 with responsibility for water quality in the Great Lakes. The IJC began studying Great Lakes water pollution seriously in 1972. Twenty years later, the IJC said its scientific studies had forced it to conclude that humans were in danger of irreversible harm from toxics, and fundamentally new, preventive approaches were needed.

For example, the IJC said in 1990 that the burden of proof for chemical safety should be put on the manufacturers and users of chemicals, not on the general public. Thus the IJC called for a complete reversal of the present system, which requires the public to prove harm from a chemical before control can begin.

In its 1992 report, the IJC asked, "Are humans and our environment in danger from persistent toxic substances now? Are future generations in danger? Based on a review of scientific studies and other recent information, we believe the answer to both questions is yes."

In sum, said the IJC, "We conclude that persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in any quantity".

The IJC's science advisory board in 1986 had drawn up a list of 362 toxic compounds found in the Great Lakes. At least half of these were chlorinated chemicals.

"In practice, the mix and exact nature of these various compounds cannot be precisely predicted or controlled in production processes. Thus it is prudent, sensible, and indeed necessary to treat these substances as a class rather than as a series of isolated individual chemicals", the IJC said in 1992.

And finally, the IJC said, "We know that when chlorine is used as a feedstock in a manufacturing process, one cannot necessarily predict or control which chlorinated organics will result, and in what quantity. Accordingly, the Commission concludes that the use of chlorine and its compounds should be avoided in the manufacturing process."

The US chairperson of the IJC in 1990 and 1992 was Gordon Durnil, a conservative Republican appointed by President Bush. In his book, The making of a conservative environmentalist, Durnil says initially the IJC proposed phasing out chlorine without any timetable. He says the commissioners discussed privately among themselves that such a phase-out might take 50 years but, "Industry came to us and told us how stupid we were, that a sunsetting [phase-out] of chlorine and finding a suitable alternative might take thirty years. Later they reduced that to twenty years."

It seems evident that chlorine users believe chlorine could be successfully phased out as an industrial feedstock in two decades without major disruption. However, the chlorine manufacturers have circled the wagons for a fight.

In 1993 the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) created the Chlorine Chemistry Council with a budget said to be about $100 million per year. The CCC soon hired MBD (Mongoven, Biscoe, and Duchin), a public relations firm that proudly proclaims that one of its main strengths is spying on activists in universities, churches, labour unions and environmental groups.

MBD now provides the Chlorine Chemistry Council with monthly updates on the activities of groups working to phase out chlorine.

But MBD goes further, helping the Chlorine Chemistry Council develop strategies for "managing" public policies that might harm chlorine sales. The lead strategist for the CCC at MBD is Jack Mongoven.

In Mongoven's words, his "main recommendation" to the CCC is to "mobilize science against the precautionary principle", which, Mongoven says, "dovetails with long range objectives regarding risk assessment".

Precaution

The precautionary principle is a way of dealing with uncertainty in decision-making. The core idea is a willingness to take protective action without waiting for scientific proof of the need, on the grounds that delay may cause irreparable harm. Implied in the precautionary principle is what the IJC called "reverse onus" — shifting the burden of proof onto those who propose to dump persistent poisons into the environment.

The main alternative to the precautionary principle is the way the US currently does business. First, actions are proposed by corporations. Then risk assessments may be done (but usually are not required) to convince the public that the damage will be insignificant. Risk assessment is almost never a serious barrier to an economic activity. Therefore, the action is taken. It is then up to the public to show that harm has been done before controls can be initiated.

Mongoven says that the US Constitution requires that "an activity or product be proven to be harmful to public health and safety before being prohibited". In other words, corporations are allowed to release poisons until people have been harmed sufficiently that they can prove to the satisfaction of scientists that this poison caused that illness.

Given an identical scenario, the principle of precautionary action would dictate that the environment and humans should not be exposed to anything that meets the definition of a persistent poison, so preventive action would be taken, even in the absence of scientific certainty that this particular poison would cause identifiable harm.

Advice

Mongoven sees this as the major struggle of our time. Within that framework, here is some of Mongoven's advice to the Chlorine Chemistry Council:

  • "Engage a broad effort on risk assessment within the scientific community, even in groups which have taken positions against chlorine."

  • "Move quickly to take advantage of the visibility of the shortcomings of the current system by having scientists and Congressmen ready to call for the process on [sic] risk assessment CCC and CMA would like to see put in place."

  • "Bring the state governors in on the issue of risk assessment by communicating the benefits to them from being able to rely on a national standard."

  • "Take steps to discredit the precautionary principle within the more moderate environmental groups as well as within the scientific and medical communities."

Working for the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Mongoven has identified two of the four key areas of environmental debate: do we exercise restraint and take precautionary action to prevent harm, or do we allow corporations to hurt people before controls can be initiated?

And: Must the public prove that harm has occurred, or should corporations bear the burden of showing that what they plan to do isn't likely to be harmful?

But there are two additional key issues that Mongoven missed:

  • Shouldn't a corporation have to show that it has examined all reasonable alternatives and prove that it has selected the least damaging option?

  • And the big one: Who gets to decide?
    [From Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly.]