Toxic Soup

a CounterMedia backgrounder

by Liane Clorfene Casten

Dioxin, that nasty, persistent chemical created a result of fifty years of unregulated manufacturing processes, is found nearly everywhere these days. It does not normally belong in nature, but today it's wreaking its silent, invisible havoc throughout the country, bioaccumulating in our bodies and in wildlife. Dioxin has been studied by more scientists and agencies than nearly any other chemical and according to the best research, the chemical is extremely dangerous in parts per million, billion, and trillion.

Dioxin can affect humans and wildlife immediately if doses are heavy (short-term effects), but can affect us just as much if doses are consistent but smaller (long-term effects). Scientists publishing "Dioxin, Dioxin Everywhere," in one scientific journal reported as early as 1989 that "Current food chain risks may already exceed a 10 excess lifetime cancer risk." Any more dioxin in our bodies could be creating a serious critical mass. It can destroy the immune system, and create reproductive chaos as well.

So why can't we control and ban this unwanted, dangerous chemical? Because dioxin is not just a chemical, it is a political word, and acknowledging its many virulent properties could mean, for starters, billions of dollars in product liability law suits . Thus, the "dioxin debate" rages, a deliberate ploy to keep innocent consumers disarmed and guessing. Powerful government agency heads, certain print media, corporations and industry representatives have worked effectively to obfuscate the growing body of information about dioxin's toxic properties in an effort to influence public perception.

Dealing with the Great Lakes organochlorine contamination is pretty much the same story. Those with the most to lose are working mightily to maintain the status quo-- to keep chlorine as a primary industrial chemical, despite a growing body of evidence that indicates its industrial uses are not safe. <>Dioxin is part of a class of chemicals known as organochlorines-- the combination of chlorine and other organic materials ("organo" refers to the carbon elements of the chemical) used in countless manufacturing processes. Thus, dioxin is a buzzword, a symbol for all the controversy surrounding first the Agent Orange debate, and now the organochloride debate. "Should industry be forced to phase out the industrial uses of chlorine-- which creates a list of known toxic persistent chemicals including dioxin-- despite the acknowledged costs, because the evidence of damage these chemicals can do to humans and wildlife is mounting rapidly?"

The battle rages.

Modern day industry churns out at least 10,000 chlorine compounds with what appears to be serious consequences to the health of both humans and wildlife. With evidence of chlorine's persistent and toxic qualities piling up, Canadian and U.S. commissioners appointed to the International Joint Commission (IJC)-- established by the U.S. and Canadian governments for the sound management of waters in the Great Lakes region-- have called for a phaseout of all industrial uses of chlorine.

U.S. Section Chairman Gordon Durnhill admits that the commissioners are all politically conservative with a predisposed inclination toward industry. "Regulations won't work," he said. "We need creative solutions." The commissioners' goal now is to work with industry to develop timetables to sunset the use of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds.

To that end, the Commission met in 1993 in Canada to offer an ever-growing group-- representatives from governments, industry and the environment-- and opportunity to speak, debate and present even more evidence. The IJC judged that even though many of the synthetic chlorinated organic substances have not been proven to be individually toxic, the only way to prevent pollution from these chlorine-based chemicals is to treat them as class, rather than as individual chemicals.

Many of these chlorinated organic substances are persistent and thus eligible for virtual elimination under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. A growing body of evidence suggests these compounds are toxic and harmful to health. In fact, the data tells us there could be a human health epidemic.

Women, their children and future generations are at great risk from exposure to hundreds of toxins, some of which are yet to be identified. These toxins are invisible, silent and very destructive in tiny amounts. DDT, DDE, PCBs, CFCs, pesticides, dibenzodioxins, PVCs, dibenzofurans, methylene chloride, and trichloroethylene now pollute the Great Lakes in alarming levels. Of the 11 chemicals in the IJC's Water Quality Board's list of chemical pollutants, almost half are organochlorines. Forty million tons per year worldwide are being discharged into the environment.= These chemicals are found in pesticides, plastics, solvents and dielectric fluids. They tend to be fire resistant and are nearly impossible to incinerate without producing significant quantities of toxic emissions. Because they are so toxic, they serve as very effective pesticides and antibiotics. Problem is, they affect all exposed organisms, not simply the target "pest". Newer science has found that organochlorines act like toxic hormones. The body mistakes them for natural hormones and reacts to them in ways that cause deep and permanent damage, especially when exposure occurs during the critical period of development before and immediately after birth or hatching. A new report describes a class of chemicals (35 common pesticides and 10 common industrial chemicals) that do damage to the offspring of exposed adults. The damage often remains hidden until the young grow to maturity and even to middle age. The damage occurs in three key bodily systems: immune, reproductive and endocrine. Most obvious are the links with cancer and immune dysfunction. More than 38,000 cancers including breast cancer-- a long-term effect that is affecting women at younger and younger ages.

Critical organs are the external genitals, the brain, skeleton, thyroid, liver and kidney-- because they are all targets for steroid hormone action. However, there are more subtle, intergenerational issues which include infertility, birth defects, retardation, metabolic dysfunction, hormonal abnormalities and sexual cross development (at least among animals-- so far).

The brain, which has evolved specialized and extraordinarily sensitive receptors to perceive the environment, appears more susceptible to these chemicals than nearly any other organ. Single exposures to organic chemicals may cause irreversible effects. Newborn children born to mothers eating Great Lakes fish on a regular basis suffer premature birth, low birth weights and impaired learning loss of up to 5 IQ points. They are learning disabled and developmentally delayed. Based on current breast milk concentrations nationwide, it is estimated that at least 5 percent of the babies born in the U.S. are exposed to quantities of PCBs sufficient to cause neurological effects. These short-term effects cause some scientists to believe the situation should be considered an emergency.

Wildlife has been studied more extensively in the Great Lakes Basin then in any other region. Scientific papers indicate that at least 14 animal species that depend on Great Lakes fish "are suffering severe health problems." Evidence already exists that a number of organic chemicals have reached concentrations in aquatic foods that can lead to substantial functional defects in animals that consume this food. (Most lake trout , salmon, and other species, especially the larger ones, are unsafe to eat. The chemicals are stored in their body fat where they build to toxic levels). Great Lakes bald eagles, cormorants, herring gulls and mink are suffering from sterility and population decline. The bald eagle that feeds on local fish for two years or longer contains up to ten times as much DDT, PCBs and chlordane as would allow them to reproduce successfully.

Where do these toxic chemicals come from? From everywhere: runoff of pesticides and road salt for starters. These chemicals have been banned for about 20 years in the U.S., but they are being transported into the U.S. via the atmosphere from other coun tries where their use has not been banned, and where some U.S. connected firms continue to produce them. These air particles include incineration emissions-- 22 million pounds a year-- that gravitate to the waters. At this point, the U.S. EPA actively supports incineration as a waste disposal method, and has actually bent the rules in some cases to keep incinerators running, despite permit irregularities and failed technologies. Forty percent of what goes into the stacks comes from chlorine products.

Organochlorines also come from contaminated ground water, discharge >From pulp and paper mills, and from the deliberate dumping by chemical companies that have chosen the Great Lakes as their garbage dump. These companies release millions of pounds of toxins each year.

With this kind of data, the American Public Health association (APHA) unanimously passed a resolution urging American industry to stop using chlorine. And the 21-nations party to the Barcelona Convention on pollution of the Mediterranean Sea agreed to recommend that their governments phase out toxic persistent and bioaccumulative substances by the year 2005.

However, feeling the pressure, industry is fighting back-- mightily, with the money and power to influence public opinion. Industry officials say chlorine chemicals have brought veritable miracles, from antibiotics (85 percent of all pharmaceuticals have a chlorine base) to a wide range of products we all take for granted: synthetic fibers, spoil-proof food, "crop-saving" pesticides, hospital disinfection and blood bags, contraceptives, contact lenses , flame retardants and plastic toys. Most corporations called the chlorine phaseout "premature". Spokespersons claim they employ 1.4 million workers who earn $33 billion in collective wages within the chlorine industry.

The Council of Great Lakes Industries Chief Executive Officer Paul Trippett suggested that the commission needs to more thoroughly assess the social and economic impact of its proposals before dropping what her termed a "potential economic bombshell". T rippett claimed that phasing out chlorine would cost consumers $67 billion, according to a consulting study prepared by the Chlorine Institute.

Trippett spoke for 300 industry representatives, many coming from such industrial giants as Dow Chemical , DuPont, and Georgia Pacific Paper. Industry representatives were present on nearly every panel discussion held. Their main thrust was to suggest that the decision to ban chlorine was not based on credible science , and that the decision did not involve an open and cooperative process among all stakeholders. They point out that chlorine purifies drinking water and is an important raw material used in virtually all U.S. manufacturing operations. Eliminating its use would deny society many important and valued products and eliminate many high-skilled and well-paid jobs.

And, added George Kin, Senior Vice President with Occidental Chemical Corp., "If the IJC recommendation is allowed to stand, it will be devastating to jobs and the economy in the Great Lakes Region." King and other chemical industry executives held special briefings to encourage business, labor and political leaders to fight the recommendations. Brad Lienhart, who formerly headed up Dow Chemical's production of elemental chlorine, and who now speaks for the Chlorine Chemistry Council, said the IJC recommendation is based on "counterfeit science." Industry calls for "sound science" as opposed to "irrational misconceptions".

Tell that to Dr. Omar Wasserman, well-respected German chemist who publicly and angrily listed several "irresponsible fraudulent publications" put out by industry. "Unfortunately," he said, "science plays but one percent of the decisions. The weight (regarding decisions)= goes to economics and economic pressure."

Jack Weinberg of Greenpeace, Chicago added his arguments to industry's stance, stating that the production, use or disposal of a single organochlorine compound can cause the environmental release of hundreds of different chemical compounds. He added:

"Society has neither resources, time nor methodology to complete an ecological and toxicological life-cycle analysis of 11,000 known synthetic organochlorines in any reasonable frame. As the IJC has determined, the weight of evidence linking pollution from synthetic organochlorine compounds to serious health and environmental effects is sufficient to justify action now.

"Besides," added Weinberg, "These decisions must be subject to ethical considerations. How much more science-- what standard of proof do we need? Industry demands an unrealistic burden of proof. Alternatives for most products are already available."

Theo Colburn, senior fellow at the World Watch Institute, adds that extra caution is necessary because the environment is already loaded with toxic substances. "We have reached the point where we should be concerned about releasing more," she says. Her research is being attacked by the Chlorine Institute. Jay Palter, another Greenpeace spokesperson, described industry's claim of lost jobs as "nothing short of fear-mongering." He accused the chemical industry of exploiting people's fears around the economic issue because they have a very weak case for def ending this class of chemicals.= "This industry's strategy is not unlike the tobacco industry-- to emphasize whatever scientific uncertainty exists (linking cancer and smoking) while stalling necessary regulations to protect the public from their poison."

And while industry claims that it releases "undetectable" dioxin levels, opponents counter that it depends on how you do your detecting. You have to factor in the bio-accumulating aspects of the chemical-- which eventually build up to toxic levels.

The real issues boil down to simple questions. Are the chlorine-producing industries willing to bite the bullet and make the necessary changes-- which will cost them money and require some employee re-training -- in order to help preserve life as we know is on this planet? And are the U.S. EPA and Canadian regulatory agencies ready to support the sunsetting of chlorine? Apparently, not yet-- on either count.

But the pressure is on. In actual accounting, Greenpeace's Weinberg counters industry's high cost claims of phaseout. "Even according to the industry's own cost estimates, 97 percent of chlorine use could be phased out for just $22 billion per year. Current health care costs associated with the effects of persistent organochlorines in the U.S. and Ontario have been estimated at $50 to $100 billion per year. These costs to societies would be saved if chlorine terms exceeds the value of the annual sales of the chlorine industry.

"In the pulp and paper industry, converting to a totally chlorine-free bleaching process would save industry $185 to $370 million per year in chemical costs; $108 to $189 million per year in energy costs; and additional millions or billions in reduced expenditures for water use, effluent treatment and disposal of contaminated sludge; also reduced costs for lawsuits, remediation and liability. Presently industry spends $90 billion per year to "manage" pollution after it has been created.

"The transition to a chlorine-free economy would require an investment in new construction and new technologies that would provide a powerful economic stimulus. Based on the chemical industry's estimate of this investment at $67 billion, the transition would create about 92,000 permanent jobs over a ten-year period.

"[As for] essential medicines that could be synthesized in no other way, any real-world chlorine phaseout program would certainly make exceptions. The majority of pharmaceuticals now made with chlorine could be produced through alternative means. Sixty five percent of chlorinated solvent use in the pharmaceutical industry can be feasible eliminated using available technologies."

Some companies and agencies, understanding this, have voluntarily begun to seek alternatives. Change is in the air. For example: =09

Federal researchers announced that a chlorine-free replacement for CFCs has been found and is harmless to the ozone layer. It is known as hydro-fluorocarbon, or HFC. HFCs are already being used in about 80 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 1995, and in many refrigerators. DuPont is a leader in this work as well.

Chrysler of Canada has eliminated chlorinated solvents in its manufacturing plant and finds the alternative cleaners cheaper and more efficient. They've eliminated CFCs in their air conditioning and PCBs in transformers and oil.

A proposed EPA rule would require that paper mills decrease chlorine used in bleaching. While the industry charged that the change will cost $10 billion and kill 19,000 jobs, EPA estimated the cost at $4 billion with 10,700 jobs lost. Industry is moving to replace straight chlorine in bleaching pulp and paper with chlorine dioxide, which whitens less efficiently but reduces the quantity of the dioxins in mill effluent. At this point, Lyons Falls of New York claims to be the "First in the U.S. to make Chlorine Free Papers," and Louisiana Pacific of California is creating "quality kraft pulp... totally chlorine free," using oxygen, ozone and peroxide. In Sweden and Germany, there is progress to phase out chlorinated plastics, and to build chlorine-free paper mills. Both Ontario and British Columbia Water Regulations call for zero discharge of organochlorines by the year 2002.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics consume around one-quarter of the world's chlorine supply and is the largest use of chlorine worldwide. It serves as flooring, sidings, pipes, wire casting and bottles. But wood, metal and chlorine-free polymers such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can take the place of PVC for most uses. In Vienna, Austria, new hospitals are being built with no PVCs at a much cheaper price. Vienna hospitals are also using chlorine-free paper, pure cotton uniforms, heat to clean bedpans and no spray cans. <>The IJC commission is served by a number of task forces and research experts who report their findings to the commissioners. Over the years, interest in IJC's work has mushroomed; in its meeting in 1987, 400 attended, 1,900 attended in 1993. Since the IJC can only make recommendations, most participants understand the power of political pressure and the value of planning.

Understanding that social, economic and environmental concerns are of equal value, Greenpeace, unions and others argue for the establishment of a GI bill or Superfund for worker re-training, low interest loans, income support and economic incentives to make the transition viable. An international fund for worker tuition, relocation costs and other benefits could be created by those producers of substances targeted for elimination.

A few left the conference hopeful. The dialogue is opening and some systems are changing. The only question now is, how long will it take?

Originally published in Chicago Life July / August 1994