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Poisoning Our Future

Executive Summary

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Decades of scientific evidence and public health case studies link toxic chemical exposure to serious health and environmental problems. Hundreds of chemicals are listed in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory based on their ability to cause cancer, neurological problems or other health effects--and substances like dioxins, mercury, lead and PCBs are some of the most dangerous substances known to science. These toxins pose a significant threat to public health and the environment because they are highly toxic even in minute quantities, remain in ecosystems for long periods of time and accumulate in the tissue of animals and wildlife. These “persistent bioaccumulative toxins” often increase their impact as they move up the food chain, and create a legacy of damage for months, years, and even decades after they are released into the environment.

Poisoning Our Future: The Dangerous Legacy of Persistent Toxic Chemicals found that industries across the country reported directly releasing to the air, land, and water nearly 20 million pounds of persistent and bioaccumulative toxins in 1996, the most recent data available from the Community Right to Know Act’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Releases of these substances at that level present a significant risk. For example, it takes only a fraction of a teaspoon of mercury to contaminate an entire 25 acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat.

However, because of loopholes on the federal reporting program, this 20 million pounds reported represents only a small picture of the real pollution. Poisoning Our Future found that for the most common of these substances like mercury and lead, this reported information accounted for approximately 9 percent of all releases of those chemicals. 1996 TRI data accounted for approximately 8 percent of EPA estimated releases of mercury and 35 percent of lead air emissions. The TRI data accounted for zero percent of dioxin emissions--dioxin, thought to be the most toxic substance known to exist, is not even on the reporting list. In addition, we estimate that approximately as little as 30 percent of facilities that use or release these substances reported to TRI in 1996.

U.S. PIRG and the National Environmental Trust analyzed toxic chemical releases of 31 substances known to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in animals and wildlife. We then used several EPA studies to estimate the predicted actual releases of five of the most well-known of these substances, compared to those reporting their releases to TRI.

The threat of persistent and bioaccumulative toxins is widely recognized. The International Joint Commission on Great Lakes Water Quality, upon the advice of dozens of leading scientists, has declared that “persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in any quantity.” And nations from around the world are entering UN sponsored negotiations to create a global solution for the elimination of persistent organic pollutants.

The 1986 Community Right to Know Act has been lauded by environmentalists, policy makers, and even industry as one of the most effective environmental laws in the U.S. Shining the public spotlight on toxic chemical releases motivates industries to find ways to reduce pollution. However, the nation’s best reporting law tells us almost nothing about the chemicals that present the greatest threat to public health and the environment. Furthermore, the public, policy makers, and even industries themselves do not have the information needed to track and promote pollution prevention.

At a time when we should be working to eliminate these substances, industries in the U.S. are fighting to stop even reporting their releases to the public and policy makers. The Clinton Administration has played a leading role in championing Right to Know expansions, but there are several major holes in the program that keep vital information from the public. As the EPA is now considering changes to Right to Know reporting requirements for persistent and bioaccumulative substances, we are calling on them to stand strong against the pressure from industries that have been fighting the public’s Right to Know for years. There is no compelling reason to keep the public in the dark about the most dangerous substances known to science and the legacy created by their pollution.

U.S. PIRG and the National Environmental Trust are calling on the Clinton Administration and EPA to take the critical steps needed to reduce the use and release of these dangerous substances. Specifically, the Clinton Administration and the EPA should:

  • lower Right to Know reporting thresholds to include information on all persistent or bioaccumulative toxins, and add dioxins to the reporting list. This requires that EPA set a single zero threshold for reporting of these extremely dangerous substances;

  • expand Right to Know reporting to include all major industries that are sources of pollution and are currently exempt from reporting, and information on toxic chemicals used in the workplace, transported through communities, and placed in consumer products; and

  • take steps to directly eliminate the use and release of substances like mercury and dioxin by setting strict emissions standards for mercury from power plants, and requiring the development and use of alternatives to major polluting practices such as waste incineration, and industrial chlorine processes that result in the formation of dioxin.


april 1999

©1999 Public Interest Research Groups