In 1994, researchers discovered unusually high rates of lupus and multiple myeloma (a bone marrow cancer) among Arizona residents in Tucson and Nogales. These researchers theorized that the high rates could be attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals. In Tucson, fifty thousand people had consumed water contaminated with trichloroethylene, a degreasing solvent. On the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, pollution from approximately one hundred Mexican maquiladoras (factories) and smoldering waste dumps had long filled the area’s air and bodies of water with toxic waste. According to Los Angeles Times environmental writer Marla Cone, Nogales “is plagued with so many sources of pollution that no one has a clue which chemical— or more likely which combination—might be playing a role in the lupus and myeloma.”
Americans are currently exposed to more than seventy thousand chemicals and their toxic waste by-products, including benzene, chlorine, dioxin, lead, mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and pesticides. Such waste—generated by trash incineration, crop spraying, paper bleaching, water chlorination, and other industrial activities—can accumulate in the human body and are suspected of causing birth defects, cancer, learning and reproductive disorders, respiratory illnesses, and other ailments. Because of this potential health threat, government regulations restrict the use of many toxic chemicals in order to prevent their waste byproducts from entering the air, land, and water.
Exposure to Dioxin
But environmentalists and industry representatives continue to debate whether toxic waste actually does cause long-lasting illnesses, particularly cancer. Consider the case of dioxin, a by-product of industrial processes such as plastics incineration, herbicide manufacturing, and paper bleaching. Experts have called dioxin, which does not readily degrade in soil or water, the world’s most toxic substance. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Dioxin Reassessment estimates exposure to dioxin to carry a cancer risk of one in one thousand to one in ten thousand. However, critics contend that not one case of cancer has ever been conclusively linked to dioxin. Environmental educator and writer Mike Weilbacher writes that research on dioxin, “the most studied chemical in history, produces no consensus on . . . its health effects.” A lack of consensus applies to other chemicals as well. According to Business Week writer John Carey, “Science is decades away from being able to pinpoint the hazards of the thousands of chemicals that permeate our environment.”
The chemical industry and others defend the use of many toxic chemicals. According to the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), a trade group that represents nearly two hundred chemical companies, many “chemicals make a valuable contribution to our economy and standard of living. They are important in curing diseases.” Chlorinated compounds, for example, “are an essential component in the manufacture of 85% of pharmaceuticals,” notes the Chlorine Chemistry Council. Rhodes University professors Ben Bolch and Harold Lyons contend that “chlorine, in its use for water treatment, has probably saved as many lives as any other chemical.” Furthermore, many chemists worry that Americans are becoming needlessly fearful of all chemicals. Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug warns that society is in the “grip of a virulent strain of chemical-phobia” induced by the “pseudo-scientific promoters of toxic terror.”
Both the EPA and CMA maintain that chemical companies have substantially reduced emissions of chemicals listed on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a list of six hundred chemicals monitored by the federal government. According to the EPA, some thirteen hundred companies that participated in an effort known as the 33/50 Program, which operated from 1991 to 1997, collectively achieved the program’s goal of reducing waste from seventeen toxic chemicals by half. The CMA contends that under its Responsible Care program, which all members must adhere to, companies achieved a 44 percent reduction in TRI waste from 1988 to 1993. CMA president Fred Webber writes, “We’re seeing the payoff from a lot of hard work and money invested by the chemical industry in preventing pollution.”
Not So “Green”?
However, environmental organizations and activists argue that chemical corporations are not as “green” as they claim. They note that the CMA has sued the EPA to remove some chemicals from the TRI. According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “The CMA vigorously opposes ‘Community Right to Know More’ legislation designed to provide community members with more complete information about toxic chemicals. It also opposes federal legislation designed to promote voluntary reductions in toxic chemical use.”
Environmentalists assert that such a weak commitment to protecting the environment necessitates governmental restrictions or bans on certain chemicals, more rigorous testing of chemicals, and expansion and stronger enforcement of the TRI. In the words of the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 90 percent of industrial chemicals “have never been subjected to adequate testing to determine their impact on our health.” Environmental Research Foundation director Peter Montague maintains that “new chemicals should be assumed harmful until they have been thoroughly tested for all the kinds of harm we presently know about.” Some environmental organizations have even waged campaigns to ban certain toxic chemicals. Since the 1980s, for example, Greenpeace has advocated a phaseout of all uses of chlorine.
Nevertheless, environmentalists and industries have reached some agreement on the issue of chlorine. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, a growing number of paper mills now employ a technique known as elemental chlorine-free, which makes dioxin levels “undetectable” and “not of concern to EPA.”
But the two sides remain adversaries on the use of chemicals as a whole. Environmental activists contend that if there is sufficient reason to suspect that a chemical threatens health, then it should not be used. Conversely, chemical companies and other manufacturers assert that until studies prove that a chemical is a health hazard, then regulation is unnecessary. Garbage and Waste: Current Controversies examines the effects of toxic chemicals and waste in the following chapters: How Severe Is the Garbage and Waste Problem? Is Toxic Waste a Health Hazard? Is Recycling Effective? Are Government Regulations Necessary for a Cleaner Environment? The contributors to this anthology address these questions as they examine the issue of garbage and waste in America.