[Try this just for fun while reading the essay excerpted below:
For 'reverse onus' read 'Extended Producer Responsibility'
and for 'ecological paradigm' read 'zero waste paradigm'.
'Risk paradigm' is analogous to 'waste management
paradigm', it seems to me, but in reverse. While the risk
paradigm treats chemicals separately, the waste
management paradigm says we can manage used
resources by mixing them until they loose residual value
and then hiding them in increasingly large, centralized
and costly wasting facilities. -- Bill S.]
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Thursday, July 27, 2000 10:58 AM
Subject: Rachel #704:
MODERN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION--PART 1
Two extraordinary books have just been published by MIT Press.
Together, they describe a fundamentally new approach to
environmental protection. This week we begin reviewing Joe
Thornton's PANDORA'S POISON. Soon we will review Mary
O'Brien's MAKING BETTER ENVIRONMENTAL DECISIONS. In these two
books, we see the best environmental thinking of the past 15
years really coming together. This is what we've all been waiting
for -- a new system for environmental protection that can unite
the various strands of the environmental community behind a few
shared goals and a common agenda. This IS powerful reason for
Using chlorinated chemicals as a case study,PANDORA'S POISON
reveals how (and why) the current system of environmental
protection has failed so miserably. To replace this failed
system, Thornton describes a fundamentally new approach.
Thornton is a scientist, a molecular biologist, and the bulk of
his book describes in detail the extensive damage that
chlorinated chemicals have already done to humans and wildlife.
Thornton shows that in just 60 years, the petrochemical industry
has contaminated every living thing on earth with novel
toxicants, some of which disrupt life's fundamental processes at
levels measured in parts per trillion (a proportion equivalent to
one drop in a train of tank cars 10 miles long). Introduction of
organochlorine chemicals by Dow, Monsanto, DuPont and others was
an unprecedented act of hubris combined with a studied ignorance
as to consequences. And of course it was all perfectly legal,
licensed and overseen by the world's most vigilant regulatory
agencies. How could this happen? Thornton tells us how.
The chemical industry now produces an astonishing 40 million tons
of elemental chlorine each year, which it then combines into
11,000 different chlorinated chemical products, plus thousands of
other unintended chlorinated byproducts, virtually all of which
are toxic and all of which eventually make their way into the
environment, where, for the most part, nature has no efficient
means for decomposing them. Most of these toxicants interfere
with the fundamental processes of living things. As a result,
"Every species on earth -- including humans -- is now exposed to
organochlorines that can reduce sperm counts, disrupt female
reproductive cycles, cause endometriosis, induce spontaneous
abortion, alter sexual behavior, cause birth defects, impair the
development and function of the brain, reduce cognitive ability,
interfere with the controlled development and growth of body
tissues, cause cancer, and compromise immunity. If we stopped all
further pollution today, these compounds would remain in the
environment, the food web, our tissues and those of future
generations for centuries," says Thornton, summarizing the
findings of more than a thousand scientific studies.(pg. 6)
Thornton makes it clear that the decision to add chlorine to
industrial organic chemicals was one of the most profound errors
that humans have ever made. He argues cogently that most
chlorinated chemicals should be phased out over the next several
decades, and we should adopt a new system of environmental
protection that would prevent such errors in the future.
Thornton is an excellent writer, so his book is easy to read, but
the book is also an intellectual tour de force, synthesizing
scientific information from toxicology, epidemiology, ecology,
molecular biology, and environmental and industrial chemistry.
But Thornton does not stop there; in the final chapters he delves
into history, ethics, and the philosophy of science to describe
and explain the system of environmental protection that allowed
the global organochlorine disaster to unfold. He labels the
current, failed system the "risk paradigm" and he proposes a
fundamentally new system for environmental protection, which he
calls the "ecological paradigm."
As Thornton says, "A paradigm is a total way of seeing the world,
a lens that determines how we collect and interpret data, draw
conclusions from them, and determine what kind of response, if
any, is appropriate."(pg. 7)
The "risk paradigm" tells regulators which problems are
important, and how to handle them. Unfortunately, it is an
entirely inadequate tool for managing chlorinated chemicals and
other persistent or bioaccumulative pollutants like mercury,
lead, asbestos, and biologically active radioactive elements such
The risk paradigm tries to manage pollution one chemical at a
time by allowing chemical discharges so long as they don't exceed
a numerical standard of "acceptable" contamination. This approach
assumes that ecosystems have an "assimilative capacity," a
certain ability to absorb and decompose chemicals without harm,
and it assumes that humans can learn what that assimilative
capacity is. The risk paradigm also assumes that organisms, such
as humans or birds, can accommodate some degree of chemical
exposure with no or negligible adverse effects, so long as
exposure remains below the "threshold" at which toxic effects
The "ecological paradigm" is entirely different. As Thornton
says, "First and foremost the Ecological Paradigm recognizes the
limits of science: toxicology, epidemiology and ecology provide
important clues about nature but can never completely predict or
diagnose the impacts of individual chemicals on natural
systems."(pg. 10) The proper response to this inevitable
scientific uncertainty is to avoid practices that have the
potential to cause severe damage, even in cases in which we do
not have scientific proof of harm. This is the precautionary
principle, familiar to RACHEL'S readers. (See REHW #586.)
However, Thornton points out, the precautionary principle does
not tell us what kind of action to take. So we need to supplement
the precautionary principle with three additional principles:
zero discharge, clean production, and reverse onus. Together,
these ideas constitute a new "ecological paradigm" for protecting
Zero discharge means we must eliminate rather than allow the
release of substances that persist or bioaccumulate (because they
remain in the environment, available to cause trouble). Their
persistence tells us that nature does not have means for handling
Clean production emphasizes the redesign of products and
processes so they don't use or create toxic chemicals -- avoiding
trouble before it occurs. The point of clean production is to
seek out, and adopt, the least harmful alternatives.
Reverse onus is a new way of evaluating chemicals. Using the
principle of reverse onus, the burden of proof, which now rests
with society to prove that a chemical will cause harm, is shifted
to those who want to produce or use a novel chemical. Such people
must demonstrate in advance that their actions are not likely to
pose a significant hazard. Chemicals currently in use that cannot
meet this criterion will be phased out in favor of less damaging
In the "risk paradigm," a lack of data about a chemical is taken
as evidence of safety, so untested chemicals are allowed to be
used without restriction. The result is the current permissive,
laissez faire system in which anything goes until someone can
prove to a scientific certainty that significant damage has
In contrast, the "ecological paradigm" amounts to "a program of
continued reductions in the production and use of all synthetic
[human-created] substances, with priority given to chemical
classes that are known to persist, or bioaccumulate, or cause
severe or fundamental disruptions of biological processes."(pg.
11) As Thornton says, "By reversing the onus in environmental
regulation, the Ecological Paradigm simply applies the standard
that society now uses for pharmaceuticals -- demonstrate safety
and necessity before a drug is licensed for introduction into
patients' bodies -- to chemicals that will enter our bodies
through the environment. Reversing the burden of proof would also
set straight the twisted ethics of the current system, in which
we mistakenly grant chemicals the presumption of innocence--a
right that was created for people--while humans and other species
are subject to a large-scale, multigenerational experiment of
exposure to untested and potentially toxic chemicals."(pg. 11)
[More next time.]
 Joe Thornton, PANDORA'S POISON; CHLORINE, HEALTH, AND A NEW
ENVIRONMENTAL STRATEGY (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000). ISBN:
 Mary O'Brien, MAKING BETTER ENVIRONMENTAL DECISIONS; AN
ALTERNATIVE TO RISK ASSESSMENT (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
2000). ISBN: 0262650533.
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