President Clinton’s proposal for revising the Clean Water Act, announced on February 1, included what could be a dramatic breakthrough in U.S. environmental policy. It called for a two-and-a-half-year study to develop a national strategy to “substitute, reduce, or prohibit the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds.” This new national policy has its roots in the Great Lakes region and in the battles fought by the area’s environmentalists. Heading the charge against chlorine for the past five years has been Jack Weinberg, a legendary figure from the 60s student movement who’s now working for Greenpeace in Chicago.
As Clinton’s policy announcement emphasized, the evidence has steadily accumulated that many chlorine compounds are linked to widespread problems among animals, threatening not only the lives of exposed individuals, but also the well-being of species. Similar problems are also showing up in studies of humans, including cancers; sexual abnormalities; disturbances of the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems; and impaired learning abilities and general vitality in the offspring of exposed parents.
A combination of this evidence and popular outrage mobilized by Weinberg and other environmentalists paved the way for a change in policy. Two years ago a little known U.S.-Canadian governmental body, a guardian of the Great Lakes environment, stunned the region’s industrialists with a dramatic proposal: businesses should stop using chlorine, one of the key components of the chemical-industrial way of life.
The International Joint Commission (IJQ), established in 1909 to monitor agreements between the U.S. and Canada on the Great Lakes and the surrounding ecosystem, concluded in 1992 that a chlorine ban was the only way to achieve its legislatively mandated goal: the “virtual elimination” of persistent toxic substances from the Great Lakes and “zero discharge” of new persistent toxics. If the environmental movement can help Clinton prevail over industry opposition, foot-dragging, and pursuit of loopholes, this may become the standard for the entire country.
That would be no small matter: chlorine and thousands of organic chlorine compounds–chemicals containing both carbon and chlorine–are used in a vast range of industries: papermaking, electronics, auto manufacturing, metalworking, plastics, pesticides, and dry cleaning, to name just a few.
Even industry representatives grudgingly acknowledge that a few chlorine compounds might be harmful. Of course it’s hard not to admit this given that some of these compounds, such as the insecticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), have already been banned in this country and that there’s a worldwide agreement to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have dangerously thinned the earth’s ozone layer. But they argue that the proposed ban on this whole class of thousands of chemicals is based on “emotion,” not “science.”
When the IJC convened its biennial meeting last October in Windsor, Ontario, industry representatives were out in force among the crowd of 1,700 scientists, government officials, environmentalists, and interested citizens. Many of their companies had recently formed the Chlorine Chemistry Council, with a $5-million budget, in hopes of bogging down the movement toward banning chlorine. The lobbyists treated the IJC decision as the starting bell of round one in a battle with environmentalists. Anxious to make their case, they debated environmentalists and assembled their own expert panels to discuss what they considered a rational, scientific approach to questions about chlorine.
Jack Weinberg was on one such panel. It was obvious that he wasn’t one of the crowd, which was made up mainly of corporate executives, scientists, and engineers. He was wearing a coat and jacket, but the cut and shade were a little too hip and Italianate for this group. And though he was white and balding, like much of the audience, his remaining hair was pulled back in a ponytail. But the real incongruities became apparent as he talked.
The industry supporters on the panel had argued that chlorine compounds can’t be treated as a class since they differ considerably in their properties. They contended that no one has yet proved the dangers of even chlorine compounds like dioxin, which scientists often refer to as one of the most toxic substances known to humankind, not to mention less toxic chlorinated compounds. In any case, they said, these chemicals must be reviewed and studied one by one with appropriate regulations promulgated for each.
They also insisted that ecosystems and their inhabitants, including humans, can tolerate some level of any toxic pollution, since there’s a threshold below which chemicals have no effect. They also argued that small doses always have small effects and that organisms have methods of breaking down and dealing with even strongly toxic materials if the dose isn’t too great. And they said that decisions on these issues had to be made only on the basis of science, but that in many cases science hasn’t delivered its final judgment.
Weinberg finally took the lectern. Rather than debate on the terms the industry scientists had laid out, he called for a “new paradigm” in approaching environmental issues. “What we’re debating is not science but public policy,” he said in his mild-mannered fashion. “Public policy is informed by many things, including science. One of those things is ethics. What standard of proof do you need to phase out harmful substances?”
In a murder trial, he argued, we insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt so that we protect the rights of the accused. By analogy, he said, we could regard the world as a large laboratory and wait to see how many people die from exposure to toxic chemicals, how many in future generations have learning problems, how many reproductive and hormonal problems develop. That’s essentially what we do now, he said. “And that’s bad ethics.”
The IJC–whose commissioners identify themselves mainly as conservative and sympathetic to industry and who were appointed by two conservative administrations–had also concluded that public policy can’t wait for definitive scientific conclusions. Clear-cut results are especially hard to reach in studies of harm to wildlife or humans when there are many potential interrelated causes, so the commissioners concluded that governments should act on “the weight of the evidence.”
Weinberg observed that public policy may also be influenced by prejudices such as habit, insecurity, and fear; by money; and by emotion. “Yes he said, emotion is involved. Emotion goes up when people feel disempowered–especially when money, clout, and power decide the issues.”
He did criticize the science of chlorine’s defenders, but he primarily argued that we have to change the whole way we approach such issues. “We are talking about a new paradigm, a new way of looking at scientific, regulatory, and ethical questions. We start with the premise that the life-support systems on earth are in jeopardy. If this hypothesis is correct, we need an approach that has a chance of solving problems in time. If we follow the strategy of the chemical industry, the only thing we know for sure is that there is no way we can solve problems in time.”
Testing each of tens of thousands of chemicals at current rates could take centuries to complete. And simply regulating the sources of extremely toxic substances means that more will continue to be released into the environment, even if at a reduced rate. Weinberg argued instead for “the precautionary principle,” the idea that if there are reasonable grounds to suspect a human activity may harm the environment and life on the planet, we should act as if the harm is likely until proven otherwise. To the extent that potential harm is very great, very long-lived, and irreversible, we should be even more cautious.
People may be considered innocent until proven guilty, he said. But most chemicals–especially organochlorines, which are consistently associated with harmful effects–should be considered suspect until proven innocent. In other words, the burden of proof should be on a manufacturer or user to demonstrate a chemical’s safety before introducing it into the environment. Today, after only minimal testing, new organochlorines and other chemicals are being introduced into the environment–and then we wait for years to see how much harm they do.
This reverse burden of proof may seem tough to chemical manufacturers, but it still isn’t enough. For even if a chemical seems relatively harmless in a laboratory test, it’s hard to tell how it will behave in the environment. Recent research suggests that mixing chemicals in the environment can create new or more potent dangers.
Weinberg’s passionate but unhysterical style clearly had an impact. “I learned some things from the Greenpeace side,” admitted Paul Tippett, chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Industries and former chairman of American Motors. “The intensity of their commitment is persuasive if they do it in a rational way.” But Tippett argued that industrialists lived in the Great Lakes area too and therefore had their own precautionary principles. One scientist with a paper manufacturer disagreed with Weinberg’s conclusions, but then said, “He’s like a Baptist preacher. He believes so much in what he’s saying that he’s almost persuasive.”
The IJC staff and independent scientists presented the same arguments as environmentalists like Weinberg, along with evidence to support them. They must have been persuasive, because the IJC’s latest biennial report, released February 17, restated its call for a ban on chlorine and other persistent toxic chemicals in even stronger terms. It embraced Weinberg’s “new paradigm.”
“The integrity of the Great Lakes and life forms that depend on them remain at an unacceptable level of risk from persistent toxic substances,” concluded the IJC’s report. “Organochlorines are a major class of pollutants that should be addressed collectively due to their large number and the egregious characteristics of many of them.”
Of course the IJC doesn’t have the legal power to make policy, set standards, or even enforce the agreements for which it’s responsible. That power rests with the governments of Canada and the U.S. At the Windsor meeting both governments refused to endorse the ban on chlorine recommended by the IJC, but now the Clinton administration has changed its mind.
The case against chlorine that the IJC has advanced developed slowly and piecemeal for many decades, and only recently became a major focus for a wide range of environmental. organizations. Most people are unaware of the role, of chlorine in their lives. If pressed for examples they might cite chlorine in drinking water, swimming pools, laundry bleach, and salt–none of which is a major problem. Chlorine becomes an issue mainly when industry deliberately or accidentally forms organic chemicals, compounds based on carbon and hydrogen.
The average consumer doesn’t directly buy many chlorine compounds, with the exception of vinyl plastics, bleaches, pesticides, many aerosol propellants, and cooling agents in refrigerators and air conditioners. But most white paper in this country has been bleached with chlorine, and myriad items are cleaned with chlorinated solvents, from wool suits at the local dry cleaner’s to automobile parts on the assembly line.
Chlorine is also a catalyst in the production of hundreds of other products. A 1993 industry study claims that chlorine is involved directly or indirectly in the production of $71 billion worth of goods in the U.S. every year. Industry deliberately manufactures and uses roughly 11,000 chlorinated compounds–and accidentally generates many thousands more in the course of production, use, and disposal of chlorine products.
Most of these deliberately and accidentally manufactured chemicals–including elemental chlorine, a light green gas–are completely alien to nature. It’s true that there are hundreds of naturally occurring organochlorines, but most are produced in small quantities by lower life forms–such as algae, fungi, and sponges–as defensive poisons.
People began making chlorine by running an electric current through salt water, producing chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, caustic soda–roughly a century ago. But chlorine chemistry only took off about 50 years ago. Chemists and manufacturers were intrigued by chlorine because it was a strong reactive that could be used to create strange new substances. These new chemicals were frequently very long lasting, dissolved greases easily, or killed off pests effectively. Only later did scientists realize that these qualities also compounded their harmfulness to the environment and the health of wildlife and humans.
There were reports of health dangers associated with chlorine compounds early in the century, but the environmental effects of chlorine first got wide public attention with the revelation of the effects of DDT in the early 60s. Research, much of it done in the Great Lakes region, gradually established the dangers of other organochlorines to wildlife and human health. Scientists have identified at least 168 organochlorines in the Great Lakes ecosystem and at least 177 organochlorines in the blood, fat, breast milk, semen, and breath of humans in North America. Organochlorines account for more than half of the Great Lakes pollutants targeted for special attention by the IJC.
Organochlorines are of special concern because so many of them persist in the environment for months or years. Some eventually break down into harmless chemicals, like salt (sodium chloride). Many break down into even more toxic compounds, and some are virtually indestructible.
Many of the persistent organochlorines also bioaccumulate, increasing in concentration as they move up the food chain, as, for instance, big fish eat small fish. Being very fat soluble, they tend to concentrate in fatty tissues (the biggest fish, like salmon and lake trout, tend to be fatty fish). The chemicals accumulate even more when these fish are consumed by eagles, cormorants, mink, or humans.
To get some idea of this magnification, consider the results of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s research: some highly chlorinated aromatic chemicals–such as hexachlorobenzene or various pesticides–are found in fish in concentrations of 10,000 or more times the levels in the water around them. The concentration of the most potent form of dioxin in fish was magnified 159,000 times, the level of PCBs in eagle eggs 25 million times.
Proving conclusively that these organochlorines are extremely toxic hasn’t been simple. Part of the difficulty in determining the effects of a single chemical stems from the nature of epidemiological research: in the environment tens of thousands of chemicals are mixed together, all interacting with one another. This makes it hard for scientists to discover whether there’s any link between a particular substance and a health problem–which may occur many years after an organism was exposed. Moreover, the general population is part of this giant experiment, which means that the control subjects used for comparison–for example, average people who’ll be compared to those exposed in an industrial accident–may well have been exposed to indeterminate levels of the chemical being studied.
Despite the inherent difficulties of this undertaking, a substantial body of research already exists that implicates organochlorines such as PCBs, DDT, dioxin, and hexachlorobenzene in health problems or outright epidemics among at least eight Great Lakes birds (including eagles, gulls, terns, and cormorants) and several mammals (including mink, beluga whales, and humans). These chemicals appear to be associated with rapid population declines, birth defects, eggshell thinning, reproductive disorders, infertility and low sperm counts, behavioral abnormalities (ranging from young offspring failing to thrive to feminization of males), and biochemical and endocrine-system changes, including damage to immune systems.
Typically chemicals have been studied to see simply whether they’re likely to induce cancer or kill a laboratory specimen outright. But recent research on organochlorines focuses on damage to reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems and to the development of embryos and infants. There’s growing evidence that many organochlorines “mimic” normal hormones, especially the female sex hormone estrogen, and replace them in the body.
This kind of damage is particularly troubling. First the dangers to health may include reactions that are hard to detect “failure to thrive” or reduced immune protection. Second, the worst effects may well be transgenerational. Third, there may be particular moments, such as during the fetal development of a child, when even the tiniest exposure can be harmful.
Fourth, it may not be necessary to be heavily exposed for harm to result. Some research suggests that, under the right circumstances, the presence of even a single molecule of dioxin at the cellular level can have harmful effects. Since dioxins, furans, and PCBs accumulate and persist in the environment and body tissues–especially in reproductive organs, semen, and breast milk–the “background” levels that now exist in most human bodies around the world may already be sufficient to cause harm. People in an industrial region like Chicago might feel especially at risk, but many of these chemicals have already spread far and wide: Inuit people in the Arctic regions have extremely high concentrations of organochlorines, partly because of their diet of fatty fish and seal blubber (seals are high on the food chain).
The EPA’s reassessment of the dangers of dioxin will not be released until April, but preliminary reports and statements of officials involved confirm that there’s no safe dose, that the existing background levels in humans are cause for concern, and that serious health problems are indeed associated with dioxin. Very little research has actually been done on the human effects. But environmentalists and epidermiologists warn that humans can see their own future in the wildlife effects in the Great Lakes, because wildlife reproduce and mature on a faster cycle. The Great Lakes population of eagles, which are at the top of the food chain and therefore particularly vulnerable, was virtually wiped out by DDT. The birds began making a comeback after the ban on DDT, though their numbers are still small. Yet four eaglets are known to have been born last spring with crippling deformities.
The few studies of human beings suggest that PCB exposure in the embryo results in decreased head circumference and birth weight (also associated with dioxin in a new study) and that exposure in the embryo or through breast milk results in impaired development of visual perception, motor abilities, and learning capacity problems that appear to continue to plague the children as they grow up. Other studies link organochlorines to reduced sperm counts and reduced penis size.
There is also growing evidence that some organochlorines cause or at least accelerate the growth of cancers, the traditional measure of environmental and health toxicity. For example, a new study of Italians near the town of Seveso, who were exposed in 1976 to dioxin fallout from an explosion at an herbicide factory, reveals an excessive number of cancers. Perhaps most alarming is the evidence that organochlorines may be implicated in the current epidemic of breast cancer.
Since the 1940s the incidence of breast cancer has risen sharply, from about 1 in 40 women to 1 in 8 today, with the average age of the women afflicted growing progressively younger. There’s no universally accepted explanation of this trend. Researchers have identified factors associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, including a family history of breast cancer, diet, alcohol consumption, exposure to radiation, and certain reproductive or hormonal characteristics, such as early onset of menstruation or having one’s first child at a late age. But even taken together these can’t account for the epidemic.
Organochlorines are suspected as a cause because many of them mimic estrogen and elevated levels of estrogen are associated with breast cancer. The tendency of organochlorines to accumulate in fat may also be part of the problem given that the average American diet is high in fat. Organochlorines have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and women exposed to high levels of organochlorines in factories, laboratories, or heavily polluted environments show abnormally high levels of breast cancer. Other studies show a relationship between breast cancer and the levels of some organochlorines in blood, fat, or breast tissue. Israel, where for many years there was both an unusually high use of organochlorine pesticides and abnormally high rates of breast cancer, makes an intriguing case study. After the government aggressively phased out many of those pesticides in the mid-70s the level of breast cancer dropped to the levels typical of other industrial countries–even though other risk factors were growing worse.
Not all organochlorines are equally bad. But because chlorine is so reactive the production and use of even less dangerous ones generate large numbers of unanticipated or unwanted compounds. Even an organochlorine that seems relatively benign–the polyvinyl chloride used for LP records, raincoats, plastic pipe, window frames, packaging, and hundreds of other uses–requires the deliberate production of highly toxic substances (such as the vinyl monomer) as well as the unintentional production of equally toxic substances (such as dioxin). Moreover, to be made useful as a plastic, PVC requires lots of additives, many of which are themselves toxic (such as the heavy metal cadmium).
And when the final user disposes of PVC, the breakdown products–especially from incineration–can be very toxic. Indeed, one of the main objections to waste incinerators, especially hazardous-waste incinerators, is that they emit deadly dioxins and furans–the inevitable products of incomplete combustion in even the best-run incinerators (and few would qualify for that description). The IJC recently warned of the dangers of even household-waste incinerators, such as Chicago’s northwestside incinerator.
While studies of individual chemicals and their side effects accumulated, environmentalists around the Great Lakes were independently reaching similar conclusions about the threat of persistent toxic substances. By 1972 IJC biologist Mike Gilbertson had discovered a dramatic drop in the hatch rate of herring gull eggs, which he pointed out was an important warning sign because “the herring gull is really a very insensitive species.” Six years later, with little fanfare, Canada and the U.S. signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, one of the agreements the IJC monitors; it called for the “virtual elimination” of all persistent toxic substances, including those already in the environment, and “zero discharge” of new persistent toxics.
Industrialists have since argued that “zero” means undetectable: if a chemical can’t be detected, that’s as good as zero. Environmentalists like Weinberg insist “zero means zero.” Why became apparent in the mid-80s, when the U.S. EPA, taking advantage of newly developed detection technologies, discovered that dioxin, along with a vast array of other organochlorines, was present in the effluent of paper mills (which are scattered around the shores of the lakes) that used chlorine as a bleach. Given the tendency of organochlorines to bioaccumulate, even amounts not detectable by current technology in extremely diluted discharges could cause trouble. (Greenpeace leaked the EPA report to the press and began a campaign against chlorine bleaching of paper, which has had a far more dramatic effect in Europe than here.)
By the time Weinberg joined Greenpeace, in 1989, many environmental groups around the Great Lakes had formed the Zero Discharge Alliance. The IJC commissioners had just escalated their warning that even low levels of toxics posed a threat to children and were arguing that industry should demonstrate the safety of new chemicals before using them. In 1990 the major industrial nations agreed to eliminate the CFCs that are largely responsible for the ozone hole. There was also a growing campaign against waste incinerators that focused on their release of dioxin. And scientists were publishing more and more papers on the dangers of organochlorines; in 1991 they held a conference in Racine, Wisconsin, on the reproductive, developmental, hormonal, and related effects of organochlorines.
“I struggled with all of these things and pretty early came to the idea that chlorine was the thing that tied all these pieces together,” Weinberg says. “I was trying to find a way to campaign on this issue. If you stop making chlorine and using it, chlorinated organics don’t form. Chlorinated organics became the perfect target.”
It was a big leap from attacking chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, or bleach in the paper industry to calling for the elimination of one of the staples of a powerful industry with tens of thousands of corporate customers. But Weinberg and other environmentalists believed that since the knowledge of chlorine chemistry in the environment is so incomplete and the ability to control it so imperfect, prevention through a ban on production seemed a sensible precautionary strategy.
Behind their argument was the hypothesis that organic chlorine chemistry and advanced biological systems are at odds. Environmentalist Barry Commoner likens chlorine compounds to the space aliens of 1950s science fiction films who mimicked humans and infiltrated their lives. He speculates that organochlorines are so potent that life-forms more advanced than sponges that tried to incorporate chlorine compounds might have been evolutionary dead ends. “If you think of God as a chemist,” Weinberg says, “he didn’t go very far with organic-chlorine chemistry.”
The campaign against chlorine picked up steam in 1991 as a Greenpeace boat toured the Great Lakes and the Zero Discharge Alliance helped mobilize citizens for the biennial IJC meeting in Traverse City, Michigan. Then the IJC made its dramatic call for a chlorine ban. Since then its conclusion has been echoed by other international bodies: the Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution, which included 14 European governments; the International Whaling Commission; and the Barcelona Convention on the Mediterranean Sea, which included 21 nations. Recently the 50,000-member American Public Health Association added its voice to the growing chorus.
With the scientific evidence running against it, industry decided to rely on emotion for its defense. Eliminating chlorine would be either impossible or too expensive, its lobbyists said. With the help of a study from Charles River Associates, they argued that eliminating chlorine would cost the U.S. $91 billion a year, plus $67 billion in new investment for alternative technologies, and would eliminate 1.3 million jobs.
Weinberg is unimpressed. “In case after case they calculate costs based on poor, unimaginative, uncreative choices of alternatives,” he says. For example, if the solvent perchloroethylene now used for dry-cleaning clothes were eliminated, Charles River Associates assumed it would be replaced with an older petroleum distillate, Stoddard’s solvent, that would be less effective and more expensive. Yet in an EPA test of a method of wet cleaning–which uses water, soap, spotting agents, scrubbing, mechanical action, and other techniques instead of harmful solvents–customers preferred the results to the results of dry cleaning. Moreover, wet cleaning is comparable to dry cleaning in cost but yields a higher return on investment because less capital is required for equipment.
Even based on such faulty assumptions, the Charles River study indicates that 95 percent of chlorine could be eliminated at a cost of $20 billion a year. Given the $75 billion to $150 billion in health costs the IJC attributes to persistent toxic substances–and chlorine compounds make up much of that category–getting rid of chlorine would be cost-effective.
Weinberg argues that much of the growing cost of pollution regulation and control, as well as the cost of cleaning up toxic waste, could be reduced dramatically if there were simply a preventive ban on toxic chemicals. That would be a financial boon not only to private companies, which wouldn’t have to pay disposal costs, but to government–and taxpayers–who foot a large part of the pollution control and cleanup bill.
Many industries are already switching away from chlorine-based chemicals or devising new chlorine-free manufacturing processes, proving chlorine less necessary than its advocates claim. There are now even substitutes–each with its own limitations–for treating drinking water, the industry’s favorite example of its indispensability. (Only about 1 percent of chlorine is used in water systems; another 4 percent is used in treating sewage and could be relatively easily replaced.) Manufacturers who make an early switch away from chlorine may gain a competitive edge in developing new technology and securing new markets. In most of the world, government regulations and consumer preferences point toward a growing demand for environmentally benign products.
The paper industry, under attack since the mid-80s for its dioxin discharges, is an interesting case. In Scandinavia and Germany the entire pulp and paper industry is rapidly becoming chlorine free: they use oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide as well as changes in production steps. A big breakthrough came several years ago when Germany’s leading newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, began printing on chlorine-free paper, proving it was possible to meet even technically tough brightness specifications.
Yet few mills in the United States and Canada, which had long been world leaders in paper production and consumption, produce chlorine-free pulp or paper. While Scandinavian producers, the leading-edge producers of papermaking technology, win more and more new markets, the North American industry is in a mild slump.
North American mills have preferred to substitute chlorine dioxide, which dramatically reduces dioxin to levels that aren’t easily detected. That’s a great improvement, but Weinberg says the mills are still generating dioxins that could be detected with the best existing tests (which unfortunately cost $2,000 a shot) and these undetectable discharges will bioaccumulate. Moreover, he points out, these mills also still release large quantities of other organochlorines.
Rather than pour money into second-best technology, Weinberg argues, the industry would be better off becoming chlorine free. Eliminating chlorine chemicals and their corrosive by-products would make it easier for mills to “close the loop,” recycling water and energy to dramatically reduce the consumption of both. He also fears that if companies invest money now in chlorine-dioxide facilities, they’ll resist even more fiercely any later mandate on chlorine-free technology.
Weinberg sees the chlorine industry’s worst-case projection of the costs of banning chlorine as an indication that a ban is reasonable. He wants not an immediate ban, but rather a carefully planned transition away from chlorine that will minimize disruption, cost, and loss of jobs. That also appears to be Clinton’s strategy; he’s calling for an 18-month study followed by a national action plan within another year. If some uses of chlorine pose limited potential risk (either little chlorine is used or its use produces no discharge) and offer great benefits, they could be continued. The most obvious –perhaps only–such case is the production of pharmaceuticals. Since the Charles River study attributes about half the cost of phasing out chlorine to changes in the pharmaceutical industry, the cost of a virtual phaseout would be even less.
“We’re talking about a fundamental transformation of major sectors of industrial society,” Weinberg says. “Chlorine is central to synthetic chemistry, and eliminating it will require real adjustment. People may have resisted the truth, but environmental imperatives dictate that we must rethink how various sectors of society are organized. The next big phase of industrial development will involve executing society-wide U-turns in order to protect the environment and society. It’s important that it’s not just industry involved in this discussion.”
Weinberg says workers and unions in the chemical industries are among those who should be deeply involved. At his prodding, Greenpeace promotes as a central part of its chlorine ban a “workers’ superfund” program for displaced chemical workers. Originally an idea of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union leader Tony Mazzocchi, such a program could be funded by a tax–Greenpeace suggests $100 per ton–on chlorine and would provide long-term income support and extensive retraining, including college education.
In some industries, such as papermaking, there may be few disruptions as chlorine is eliminated. But it will be difficult to convert chlorine, pesticide, or polyvinyl chloride plants to new uses. Government has recognized a responsibility for hardship due to abrupt changes in public policy in the past–base closings, changed trade agreements, logging bans–and simple justice argues that displaced workers in the chlorine industry be helped too.
Practical politics argues for it as well. Having watched environmentalists and loggers square off in bitter battles for years in the Pacific Northwest over old-growth forests, Weinberg wants to avoid such confrontations here. “Toxic pollution–and chlorine in general–will be the environmental issue for the Great Lakes area, much as old growth forest has been in the Northwest. I insisted that we have something in our proposals about the transition needs of workers and communities. That was controversial within the organization. People at first did not get why we needed it. But the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers took that as a signal.” While OCAW isn’t joining the call for a chlorine ban, its leaders have said they don’t want to be producing anything that threatens human health and the environment and have worked cooperatively with Greenpeace. The new IJC report also calls for cooperation with labor in making the transition from chlorine, though in much vaguer terms.
A tax to help workers in transition would provide a further incentive for industry to move away from chlorine. For years chlorine prices have been subsidized through cheap electricity or state tax breaks for the factories that produce it. Prices for chlorine are also depressed because much of it is waste from the production of sodium hydroxide and manufacturers have to find someplace to dump it. Yet there are ways to reduce the consumption of sodium hydroxide as well as methods of producing it that don’t produce chlorine.
If the president’s new proposal goes through, the discussion will shift to planning and managing the massive industrial transition. Over the next year Greenpeace will concentrate on three uses of chlorine that account for more than half of U.S. chlorine production: paper bleaching, solvents, and polyvinyl chloride. There’s great hope that clothes cleaning–an industry of small businesses–will be able to change quickly. Weinberg hopes to work with the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology to start a demonstration project on wet-cleaning alternatives. Ecoclean, which now has three wet-cleaning stores in New York, will start nationwide franchising early next year. “This time next year,” he says, “everyone will know that solvent-based dry cleaning has to go.”
Building on the American Public Health Association’s resolution against chlorine, Greenpeace hopes to help persuade hospitals to abandon their considerable use of vinyl plastics. “Hospitals used to be the breeding ground of germs,” Weinberg says. “Now they’re breeding grounds of a toxic agent. If you want to wean society from these toxic substances, start with doctors.”
Environmentalists were sorely disappointed with Clinton earlier this year when the paper industry persuaded the administration not to include requirements for chlorine-free paper in its new government purchasing requirements for recycled paper. They were also unhappy when the EPA issued weak rules on paper-mill pollution that will permit chlorine dioxide to be used in place of chlorine.
But if Clinton can resist the lobbying of industry on chlorine better than he has on many other issues, he may more than redeem many of the environmental shortcomings of his first year in office. Planning the transition from chlorine also gives his administration an opportunity to devise a job-generating industrial policy that’s based on protecting the environment. Even more important, national policy may finally be shifting away from the flawed strategy of regulating pollution toward the much more effective strategy of preventing pollution. If that happens, the defenders of the Great Lakes, from Jack Weinberg to the IJC, deserve a major share of the credit for creating the new paradigm.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.