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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chlorine's Costs and Controversies

Air Date: Week of

David Baron of member station WBUR reports on the growing call for a near-complete ban on the use of chlorinated chemicals. Scientists say that many chlorine compounds are a central cause of environmental pollution in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere, affecting, fish, waterfowl and possibly people. A US-Canada commission which oversees the Lakes has joined the call for a ban. Users and producers of chlorine products argue that reduction of key chemicals is enough and a full scale ban is impossible and economically harmful.


CURWOOD: Breast cancer isn't the only health problem linked to chlorinated chemicals, and pesticides aren't the only chlorinated chemicals linked to health problems. Dioxin, PCBs, and other organochlorines have been tied to cancer, hormone disturbances, birth defects and nervous system disorders. In fact many researchers now say there are no safe levels of these compounds in the environment, and they that should be banned from industry. Among those supporting a ban is the International Joint Commission, the official US-Canada agency which oversees the Great Lakes. The IJC will be meeting later this month to consider ways to implement a chlorine ban. We sent reporter David Baron to the Great Lakes region to examine the chlorine debate.

(Sound of eagles screeching)

BARON: Researcher Bob Crawford has come to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing. As he's done every Monday for the past few weeks, he dons heavy gloves and dives head-first into a large cage.

Crawford emerges with bird droppings on his clothes and a bald eagle in his hands. This bird hatched five months ago in a nest in northern Michigan. Since then it's grown as big and strong as an adult bald eagle. But it probably would never have lived to be an adult had it been left in the wild. Veterinarian Jim Sikarskie holds up the bird's face. It looks bizarre - the eagle's upper bill curves to the right, the lower bill curves left.

SIKARSKIE: See, its mouth doesn't close all the way. See the air space in here. And in the winter, when this bird is flying, the tongue would freeze. And if the tongue freezes, there's no way it can swallow, even if it could catch mouth-sized fish.

BARON: The researchers are trying to determine what caused this young eagle - and three others in their care - to be born deformed. The abnormalities could be natural, genetic defects, but the scientists believe the deformities were probably caused by pollution in the food eaten by the eagles' parents - food that includes fish from the Great Lakes.

GILBERTSON: We're here standing on the Detroit River. There's Lake St. Clair upstream, beyond that there's Lake Huron.

BARON: Mike Gilbertson knows the waters of the Great Lakes region and what's in them better than just about anyone. He's Secretary of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board - a US-Canadian environmental advisory body.

BARON: If we were to dig down into the sediments, in the bottom of the river, what would we find?
GILBERTSON: Oh, DDT, PCBs, dieldren, dioxins, dibenzofurans.

BARON: Organochlorines such as these can persist for decades without breaking down. Even when the chemicals are found in the environment at low levels, they can become highly concentrated as they move up the food chain from plankton to fish to fish-eating predators.

Biologists in the Great Lakes region blame organochlorines for birth defects - and in some case, immune system, neurological, and sexual development abnormalities - in many species that eat fish...not only eagles, but also terns, gulls, cormorants, herons, osprey, turtles, mink...and - possibly - people.

Psychologist Joseph Jacobson of Wayne State University in Detroit studied more than 200 children born to mothers who regularly ate fish from Lake Michigan. He found that those children exposed prenatally to the highest levels of PCBs - which he presumed came from contaminated fish - tended to be small at birth and remained small through at least age four.

JACOBSON: We found also a series of deficits in short-term memory or attention. None of these children seemed to be mentally retarded or severely disabled in any way. We characterize it as diminished potential.

BARON: Environmentalists and biologists have long argued that particular organochlorines are dangerous, but a growing number of people now believe the entire class of compounds - which includes more than 10,000 chemicals in current use - should be banned. Lisa Finaldi heads the International Chlorine-Free Campaign for Greenpeace.

FINALDI: We've already seen how many of these products have caused serious problems. And we have to start looking at these chemicals as a group. It is almost impossible to look at them on a substance-by-substance approach.

BARON: The call to ban chlorine has gained the support of some influential governmental advisory bodies, including the Paris Commission, an international organization that oversees environmental issues in the North Sea, and the International Joint Commission, which oversees environmental issues along the US-Canadian border. Last year the IJC called for a near-total chlorine ban, making exceptions for chlorination of drinking water and chlorine-based pharmaceuticals.

US chairman of the IJC, Gordon Durnil, points out he's no knee-jerk environmentalist - Durnil is former head of the Republican Party in Indiana.

DURNIL: If just because of where I live or what I eat, my grandson can't perform in school the way he should, or if the immune system was destroyed, or I know that his sperm count's not going to be as high as mine, those kinds of things aren't liberal or conservative issues. Those are human health issues.

BARON: But phasing out chlorine use would not be simple or cheap. Brad Lienhart, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, says chlorine's uses permeate modern society, and he adds one industry-sponsored study found banning it would cost almost 100 billion dollars annually.

LIENHART: We do provide safe water to most of the homes in North America by chlorination. 85% of the pharmaceuticals in the world are manufactured from chlorine chemistry. 95% of the crop protection chemicals are made from chlorine chemistry, about half of the plastics are made from chlorine chemistry. All of the computer chips are made from chlorine chemistry. Toothpaste has chlorine chemistry in it. The list goes on and on.

BARON: Lienhart acknowledges some chlorine compounds may be harmful, but he says they're already being phased out. For instance, the pesticides DDT and dieldren were banned in the US in the 1970s. PCBs are still used in electrical equipment, but the chemicals can no longer be manufactured or imported.

One of the largest users of chlorine is the paper industry. Jo Cooper, vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association, acknowledges that chlorine bleaching can create unwanted dioxin, but she says in the past five years the industry has cut dioxin emissions dramatically.

COOPER: At this point in time, it's four ounces industry-wide on an annual basis, and that four ounces in from 105 mills in this country.

BARON: Cooper says a complete chlorine ban in her industry isn't feasible given current technology.

But Greenpeace officials argue any emission of dioxin is unsafe, and they say a chlorine ban can be accomplished more easily than the paper and chemical industries admit. Many paper mills in Europe have switched to chlorine-free bleaching. A few dry cleaners have moved away from chlorinated solvents. And the auto industry is voluntarily reducing its use of chlorine compounds.

(Sound of assembly line)

BARON: At a Chrysler Corporation assembly plant in Detroit, more than six and a half miles of conveyor belt snake along the floor and overhead. The greases that lubricate these conveyor belts used to contain chlorinated compounds. Chrysler spokesman Mark Bindbeutel says when the company decided to replace the old greases recently, it discovered a more effective substitute.

BINDBEUTEL: We have come up with a new conveyor lubricant that sprays on, is nonchlorinated, and actually behaves better. It's lasting weeks as opposed to days.

BARON: The company is also phasing out its use of chlorinated solvents for cleaning engine parts. Bindbeutel says the alternative - soap and water - is less effective, but that's not necessarily bad.

BINDBEUTEL: What that forces you to do is go upstream and find out how did the part get dirty you're trying to clean, does it really have to be this clean. You start asking yourself a lot of basic questions that are good for business.

BARON: But even Chrysler has no plans to eliminate all chlorine compounds from its plants. For instance, the company will continue using chlorine-based plastics.

MIT policy analyst John Ehrenfeld who examined the chlorine controversy for Norwegian government and industry says before an across-the-board phaseout is imposed, the risks and benefits of each use of chlorine should be evaluated separately.

EHRENFELD: There's no argument that there are substitutes in lots of areas, but I can't tell you that there aren't critical uses of chlorine that would get thrown away with the bathwater if we make this monolithic move.

BARON: Supporters of a ban - including Boston University public health professor Lew Pepper - say exceptions could be made, at least temporarily, while substitutes for critical uses are found. But Pepper says the burden of proof should be on industry to show that a particular use of chlorine is necessary and safe.

PEPPER: Chemicals are not innocent until proven guilty, we think that they need to be proven innocent and the evidence to date suggests that they are not innocent at all.

BARON: Those on both sides of the chlorine issue will be watching closely as events continue to unfold this month. The American Public Health Association will be voting on whether to lend its support to calls for a chlorine phaseout. And the International Joint Commission will hold its biennial meeting. Supporters of a ban hope the Commission will move beyond its recommendation of last year to phase out chlorine, and begin figuring out how to do.

For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron.



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