Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#187 - Niagra River -- Part 2: A Gold Standard For Control Of Toxics, 26-Jun-1990

The area along the Niagara River in northern New York state has the
heaviest concentration of chemical dumps in North America. The river
connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario and forms the border between the
U.S. and Canada. Some 5 million people drink water that flows through
the Niagara River and into Lake Ontario, including 25% of the entire
population of Canada. The international process for cleaning up 66
toxic dumps along the Niagara River, which began in 1979, has become
the subject of an excellent video called TESTING THE WATERS. Lynn
Corcoran, who produced the video, chose this topic because cleanup of
the Niagara River will set precedents for the way other areas are
cleaned up.

The video looks at two aspects of the problem: industrial dumping
directly into the river through discharge pipes, and industrial dumping
into holes in the ground (so-called landfills). In each case the video
tries to show how we got where we are today, and what our options are
for the future.

Industrial Discharge Pipes

Dumping industrial poisons into the drinking water supplies of 5
million people is entirely legal, so long as you request a permit to do
it. How does our government decide how much dumping is OK and how much
is too much?

On the video, a representative of the New York State Department of
Environmental Conservation (DEC) explains that they dole out river
dumping permits by first deciding how much waste the entire river can
"assimilate," then they divvy up this "assimilative capacity" among the
various dumpers.

This explanation is followed immediately on camera by a representative
of Environment Canada, which is Canada's equivalent of our federal EPA
(Environmental Protection Agency), who explains that many chemicals
such as PCBs, dioxin, and the pesticides Lindane and Mirex aren't
"assimilated" or degraded at all by the River. They merely flow
downstream and settle in Lake Ontario, where they build up year after
year, slowly accumulating and concentrating in food chains. This aspect
of the problem is not considered by New York state officials.

In addition to using "assimilative capacity" to apportion dumping
permits among the dumpers, New York DEC and our EPA also use "risk
assessment," we are told on camera. For each chemical that a company
wants to dump, the government decides how much of that chemical will
kill one in a million people (this is considered an "acceptable risk.")
They then license the polluter to dump sufficient quantities of poisons
to kill just that many citizens and no more. However, Professor Ross
Hume Hall from McMaster University appears on camera pointing out that
no one really knows how much of a chemical causes what effects; and, he
points out, each "risk assessment" is carried out as if the human body
only encountered that one chemical alone. Despite large gaps in our
knowledge, and despite incorrect assumptions, governments routinely use
risk assessments to make life or death decisions that are binding on
the citizenry.

Next we see a representative of Occidental Chemical (the people who
created the Love Canal toxic dump), Thomas Jennings. Mr. Jennings says,
"I think we're all familiar with the way new drugs and pharmaceuticals
have to go through rigorous testing. Well, to a lesser extent,
industrial chemicals have to go through the same thing." Unfortunately,
Mr. Jennings is simply wrong. Congress did pass a Toxic Substances
Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 containing language about testing all new
chemicals before they are marketed. But EPA has neither the will nor
the money for such testing, so about 1000 new chemicals are put into
commercial use each year without any testing for their health effects.
This part of TSCA is simply ignored.

Next Mr. Jennings explains that for each chemical there is a threshold,
an amount below which no health effects occur and above which people
get sick. He says, "We have to determine what that level is. That's a
major task for industry and for health officials into the future," he
says.

Then we hear once again from Professor Hall who points out that there
are 60,000 chemicals in industrial use and we have "absolutely no
information whatsoever" on 40,000 of them. He goes on to note that
studies aren't being done and to ask, without studies, how can we
conclude there's no problem?

The narrator then frames a key question: In the absence of information
proving that a substance is dangerous or safe to humans and the
environment, how should government regulators act? Should they wait for
evidence of danger or should they err on the side of caution and
restrict the discharge of a substance into the river because it might
cause harm? Should chemicals be assumed innocent until proven guilty,
or the other way around?

So there you have the present regulatory system in a nutshell: 40,000
chemicals already in use have never been studied for their effects on
humans and on the environment. Despite what the gentleman from
Occidental says, new chemicals are not tested before they are put into
use. The government hands out dumping permits on the incorrect
assumption that the river can "assimilate" all the chemicals that will
be dumped. Furthermore, dumping permits are issued based on health
"risk assessments" which assume that the government knows the health
consequences of the chemicals that are being dumped (an incorrect
assumption), and further assumes that any individual is only exposed to
a single chemical at any moment, which is clearly not the case.
Industry says it's up to government and industry to find "safe" levels
of chemicals; the way this is being done today is to expose large human
populations to a witch's brew of chemicals without studying the
consequences in any systematic way; when a cluster of birth defects or
cancers shows up and citizens start hollering, then the government may
grudgingly conduct a study. Meantime, the dumping continues on a grand
scale and many fish in the Great Lakes now suffer from goiter and liver
cancer and have become unsafe to eat (see RHWN #146).

The alternative, of course, is to declare that this massive experiment
on the environment is unacceptably Russian roulettish and to require
industry to shift to closed-loop technology, designing every industrial
system to meet a goal of zero discharge. As the narrator of this video
points out, it has been the stated intention of all four governments
since before the turn of the century that water used in industrial
processes should be free of contaminants before it is discharged into
the river. Zero discharge of toxics has been the goal for 100 years.

But now a representative of DuPont appears on camera saying zero
discharge sounds good but cannot be achieved. And Mr. Jennings from
Occidental Chemical says zero discharge will simply shut down industry.

Clearly these gentlemen misunderstand. We are not advocating
perfection. We are merely advocating a gold standard for toxics. Some 3
billion Troy ounces of gold have been mined during the past 6,000
years. A tiny fraction of this has been sunk at sea, has been buried in
tombs now lost, or has otherwise become irretrievable. But in general,
we notice that there is not a "waste gold" problem anywhere in the
world. Today gold is successfully mined at concentrations of only 3 or
4 parts per million (ppm). At even lower concentrations, it is readily
reclaimed from scrap. Nanograms are captured.

Historically, the real value of gold has not been that it constantly
increases in value, but that it rarely declines in value. As society
applies the "gold standard" to polluters, zero discharge of their
poisonous wastes will likewise allow them to retain what they already
have and cherish: their good names, the absence of leg irons, and the
uninterrupted flow of life fluids between their shoulders and their
heads.

Get: TESTING THE WATERS from Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA 19547; phone
(800) 543-3764. $350 purchase or $75 rental for schools and citizen
groups.

--Peter Montague

=====

Descriptor terms: zero discharge; gold standard; remedial action;
niagara river; love canal; assimilative capacity; water pollution;
rivers; occidental petroleum; tsca; risk assessment; how clean is
clean; great lakes; ny; landfilling; drinking water; tsca; chemical
industry; ross hall; government;