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Poisoning Our Future

Section II: Preventing Pollution From Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins

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At the state, national, and international levels, efforts are underway to increase the available information on the use and release of persistent bioaccumulative toxins, and develop plans of action to reduce the pollution.

The Community Right to Know Law—Public Reporting Leads to Reductions

The 1986 Community Right to Know law was passed in the wake of perhaps the most tragic toxic chemical accident in history: the 1984 Union Carbide accident in Bhopal, India, that killed 3000 people and injured 100,000. The public demanded the Right to Know about what chemical companies and other industries were releasing into the environment. The law required large manufacturing facilities to report annually on their emissions of 300 toxic chemicals to the air, land and water. This information is then compiled by the EPA in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which was the first publicly available on-line database of environmental information.

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. By shining the public spotlight on toxic chemical releases, the Right to Know reporting motivates industries to find ways to reduce pollution.

Right to Know is Drastically Incomplete

Although the federal Right to Know program provides the public with the best available information on toxic chemical releases, it is drastically incomplete. The existing Right to Know law does not allow public and policy makers, or even industry itself, to track or promote pollution prevention.

Over the past several years, a number of expansions have improved reporting under the Right to Know. In 1994 the EPA doubled the list of chemicals for which reporting is required from 300 to just over 600 chemicals, and in 1997 the EPA expanded the list of facilities required to report. Right to Know reporting will now include (as of the 1998 reporting year) industries like electric utilities and solid waste incinerators--industries that had been exempt from reporting under the original law. Although these expansions represent significant steps in the right direction, there is still a long way to go to ensure complete public access to data, and to promote pollution prevention.

Filling in the Gaps

Because of a significant loophole in the federal Right to Know law, the public is left in the dark about the use and release of some of the most dangerous substances known to science. Currently an industry must manufacture or process at least 25,000 pounds or “otherwise use” 10,000 pounds of a given TRI chemical in order to have to report to the EPA the releases of that chemical. Most of the persistent and bioaccumulative substances referred to in this report are not used at those levels, and therefore escape reporting. However, many of these substances are extremely toxic in small quantities, and even low level releases of substances like mercury and dioxins can threaten public health and ecosystem health for years.

Other substantial Right to Know reporting gaps leave the public with little access to critical information about the use and release of toxic chemicals. Of the over 75,000 synthetic chemicals on the market today, just over 600 are required to be reported on—this represents less than 1 percent of the chemicals in use. Furthermore, significant sources of toxic chemical pollution are also shielded from the public’s view. Although the addition of seven new industries in 1997 was a significant step, several polluting industries such as the oil and gas industry, medical waste incinerators, and dry cleaners are still exempt from TRI reporting. Finally, the public is also missing information on chemicals stored in the workplace, transported through communities, and placed in consumer products. This toxic chemical “use information”, also referred to as “materials accounting” data, is the information the public, policy makers, and industries need to track the use of toxic chemicals, and to figure out ways to reduce pollution at the source.

Other Important Efforts to Reduce Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins

POPs Treaty15

In June of this year representatives from around the world met in Montreal to begin working on a global solution. Montreal hosted the first round of UN sponsored negotiations to create an international treaty to eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This summer’s negotiations represent an historic event—the recognition of governments around the world that persistent substances pose a significant threat to the health of the planet, and that we need to develop a global solution.

The POPs Treaty negotiations can develop a globally binding mechanism to the elimination of persistent substances. However, the negotiation processes will likely take several years to complete, and environmental and public health organizations must continually bring this issue into the light.

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was created in 1972 between the U.S. and Canada. The Agreement commits the two countries “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.” The International Joint Commission (IJC) on Great Lakes Water Quality was created to help resolve problems in the Great Lakes, and has been the principal body working to implement the Agreement.

Since 1978 the IJC has focused on the problem persistent toxins pose in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The IJC, upon the advice of dozens of leading scientists, found that “persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in any quantity.”16 Over the past several years the IJC has adopted a “virtual elimination” strategy for persistent toxins17, and has called for the phase-out of practices like chlorine- processes leading to the formation of dioxin. Although the IJC was set up to give advice to U.S. and Canadian governments, few of the IJC’s recommendations have resulted in a specific policy change. Greater and faster implementation is needed of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the recommendations of the International Joint Commission.

15 See Center For Health, Environment and Justice, Everyone’s Backyard, 1998, Vol. 16, No. 3.
16 International Joint Commission, Ninth Biennial Report On Great Lakes Water Quality, 1998.
17 International Joint Commission, Ninth Biennial Report On Great Lakes Water Quality, 1998.



april 1999

©1999 Public Interest Research Groups