Detoxifying Terrorism: The Bio-Chemical Threat That Doesn't Make the Headlines

Heightened national security concerns have renewed interest in our vulnerability to toxic chemicals, a health threat Americans have faced for decades. In the United States, around 850,000 industrial facilities routinely use hazardous and extremely hazardous chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, creating a plethora of health and environmental problems even when the facilities are working normally.

Post September 11, these facilities are potential sitting ducks for terrorists. Bombing any one of them could disrupt local and national economies, cripple public safety, and spew untold amounts of poisonous chemicals into the environment.

Our exposure to potential terrorist attacks on chemical facilities is alarming. But even without any new acts of terrorism, these facilities are already systematically damaging people's health and well-being. In 1999, the latest year for which there are complete figures, the EPA reports that during production and disposal U.S. industrial facilities released 7.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the air and water.

And this total is far from complete: Only large manufacturers are required to report to EPA; the current list of 650 chemicals does not cover all toxic chemicals or sources; and releases during routine consumer use are not included.

Moreover, many of these compounds interfere with the normal biological functioning of species in ways we have only begun to identify, let alone fully comprehend. We have no basic health and environmental data for 71 percent of the most widely used chemicals in the United States today.

In addition, every year, thousands of workers die in industrial accidents caused by toxics. Between 1987 and 1996, more than 2,500 people were killed each year in chemical accidents at industrial plants or during transport, according to the U.S. Chemical Health and Safety Investigation Board.

In the aftermath of September 11, many of these chemical facilities are now under heightened security, as are the nation's transportation systems, military sites, and government properties. Better security is necessary, but in the long-term, our strategy should be to minimize our use of toxic chemicals altogether, and the sooner the better.

In Brussels on November 15, 2001 the European Parliament took groundbreaking steps to overhaul EU policy on the health effects of chemicals. The move would replace hazardous substances with safer alternatives by 2020, label consumer products containing toxics, lower the exposure thresholds to protect the young, and subject high-volume chemicals to greater health scrutiny.

In contrast, while the U.S. Congress has passed similar legislation to address pesticide threats, it has dragged its feet on the larger issue of chemical safety.

Innovative companies, business leaders, and public authorities worldwide have proven that many toxic chemicals are simply unnecessary, and that phasing them out with safer substitutes or with redesigned industrial processes saves money, is healthier for workers and the public, and reduces potential domestic targets.

Companies from IBM to Motorola have significantly reduced their use of chlorinated solvents in cleaning operations, turning to water-based washes instead. Toy manufacturers have phased out PVC plastic to protect children from absorbing harmful chemical additives known as phthalates. The American Hospital Association has pledged to eliminate all mercury-containing wastes by 2005. Burning these wastes releases potent toxins that damage the nervous system.

In a more systematic approach, Massachusetts passed a law in 1989 requiring manufacturers to examine their use of toxic chemicals and prepare reports on alternatives. Although the law says nothing about adopting these alternatives, some 80 percent of companies followed their own advice and reduced toxic inputs by 24 percent, while increasing production at the same time. There is also a booming business in reducing toxicity by producing goods entirely from renewable resources, rather than the current mix of toxic inputs.

In the United States, million tons of industrial and consumer materials --including paints, plastics, and detergents -- are now produced from crops, rather than chemicals. Bio-based products now account for more than 30 percent of the U.S. market in adhesives, surface cleaning agents, and additives in plastics. Last year, Dow Chemical and Cargill (an international food and agricultural company) broke ground on the world's first manufacturing facility that will make plastic from corn sugar, rather than petroleum.

Since September 11th, there have been many suggestions about how to make the country less vulnerable to terrorism. At the very least, funding the research and development of safer alternatives and cleaner manufacturing processes should be an integral part of any plan to reduce our vulnerability to terrorism.

Anne Platt McGinn is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington D.C.-based environmental research organization. She is the author of Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Hazardous Chemicals.

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