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
ReductionsThe 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 IncompleteAlthough 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 GapsBecause 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
POPs Treaty15In 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
Great Lakes Water Quality AgreementThe 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
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.
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.