CORPORATE FOCUS: The Global Chlorine Threat

The Chlorine Chemistry Council (CCC) has reason to be worried about Joe Thornton's new book. CCC's members -- Dow Chemical, Occidental Petroleum, PPG, Vulcan Chemical, among others -- sell chlorine to a customer base that makes everything from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics to pesticides.Thornton is a research fellow at Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. His forthcoming book, Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health and a New Environmental Strategy (March 2000, MIT Press), argues that chlorine and the organochlorine chemicals made from it pose a global health and environmental threat.Thornton says that evidence exists linking low-level organochlorine exposure to an increased risk of cancer, infertility, impaired child development, and disrupted immune systems. "The case is not proven, but there's enough evidence to cause real concern," he says.Thornton advocates a broad policy that would require industry to phase-out chlorine-based technologies in favor of cleaner alternatives. He says we must do away with a regulatory system that looks at one chemical at a time, and replace it with a precautionary approach that addresses major classes of chemicals and industrial processes.We spoke with Thornton about his book, and he began the conversation by launching into a chemistry lesson.Chlorine is one of the universe's basic elements. In nature, it exists almost solely in the form of salt -- sodium chloride, the extremely stable ionic form of chlorine that is abundant in the seas and in everyone's salt shaker.The environmental issue is not with salt but with chlorine gas and the chemicals that the chemical industry makes from it.Chlorine gas is produced at very large chemical facilities that take a solution of saltwater and zap it with an incredibly powerful electric current, producing an entirely new substance, chlorine gas, a heavy poisonous gas that was used as a chemical weapon in World War I.Chlorine gas combines rapidly with organic matter and produces a new class of chemicals called organochlorines.Organochlorines are generally foreign to nature, but they are produced by the chemical industry in huge amounts -- millions of tons per year. They tend to be extremely toxic, many of them are very long living in the environment, and they tend to be fat soluble, which means they build up in the tissues of human beings and other organisms.The first uses of chlorine gas were to bleach paper and to disinfect drinking water. Now the main uses are to produce plastics, other industrial chemicals, and pesticides, and also to bleach paper. It is still used for disinfection, but in relatively small amounts. About one percent goes to disinfect drinking water, and about four percent in the United States goes to disinfect sewage. The other 95 percent goes to industrial uses.The biggest one by far is the production of polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastic, which most people know as vinyl. Over 40 percent of the chlorine in the United States goes to make this plastic, which is one of the most environmentally problematic substances in our society because of the huge quantities of toxic chemicals produced during its manufacture, use, and disposal.According to Thornton, anywhere you go on the earth right now, you can find a stew of hundreds of long-lived organochlorines in the air, in the water, in the food chain, in the bodies of people.Even if you go to the high arctic, thousands of miles from any known source of these chemicals, you will find some very high concentrations of PCBs, dioxins, DDT, atrazine and other chlorinated pesticides, and a host of other organochlorines."This has happened because these chemicals don't break down in the environment, so over a very long periods of time, they are distributed around the globe on currents of wind and water," Thonrton told us. "They also build up through the food chain. The highest levels build up end up in species that are high in the food chain -- species like polar bears, whales, seals, and human beings."Human children receive some of the highest organochlorine doses of all, because breast feeding is an efficient way of transferring organochlorines that have accumulated in the mother's body into the body of the child. These chemicals also cross the placenta. These exposures occur during the most sensitive periods of development.And these are not exposures that people can prevent."Because the chemicals are absolutely everywhere, there is no way to get away from them," Thornton said "They are in the food chain, they are in the air and the water. It is not a matter of making healthy consumer choices. There is no escape from these chemicals -- all we can do is prevent further pollution."To get these hazardous chemicals off the market, under the current system, the regulatory police must prove that the chemicals are harmful. Thornton says that since there are 11,000 organochlorines on the market, plus thousands more that are formed as accidental byproducts -- many of which haven't been identified -- it would be impossible to effectively test them all.Instead, Thornton says, we should scap the current system and replace it with a system that requires the corporations to prove that the chemicals are safe -- a system that's largely in place to regulate pharmaceuticals, for example."Chlorine chemistry is a pandora's box, opened less than 100 years ago and still spewing its demons into the environment," Thornton writes. "While governments, cheered on by those who benefit from the open box, tried to chase down each and every tiny demon that escapes, we miss the simplest and most obvious solution -- close the lid."Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

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