[GRRN] Zero Waste for Chemicals

From: Bill Sheehan (bill_sheehan@mindspring.com)
Date: Fri Jul 28 2000 - 15:23:49 EDT

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    [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 -----
    From: <rachel@rachel.org>
    To: <rachel-weekly@europe.std.com>
    Sent: Thursday, July 27, 2000 10:58 AM
    Subject: Rachel #704:

    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.[1] Soon we will review Mary
    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
    as plutonium.

    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
    become significant.


    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
    the environment.

    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.]

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