Policy Documents

The Environmental Source: Chemical Risk Overview

Angela Logomasini –
July 17, 2008

The average worldwide human life span has increased from around 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century to more than 60 today, and it continues to rise. In the United States, it has reached 76 according to a recent estimate. The freedom to develop and put to use thousands of man-made chemicals has played a crucial role in that progress by making possible such things as pharmaceuticals, safe drinking water, pest control, and numerous other items.

Yet the public perception is that man-made chemicals are the source of every possible ill: from cancer to ozone depletion to infertility to brain damage. Ignoring the fact that nature produces far more chemicals at far higher doses and that most chemicals are innocuous at low doses, activists capitalize on these fears. They scare the public by hyping the risks to ensure that the government passes volumes of laws and regulations focused entirely on the elimination of chemicals, without much regard for the trade-offs.

Advocates of such limits say that we need to make sure every chemical is safe before exposing the public to it. In his recent book, Pandora’s Poison, Greenpeace’s Joe Thorton calls on society to follow the “precautionary principle,” which says “we should avoid practices that have the potential to cause severe damage, even in the absence of scientific proof of harm.” We should shift the burden of proof, he continues. Those individuals or firms introducing new chemicals must prove they are safe before introducing them into commerce, and those chemicals already in commerce that fail to meet this standard “should be phased out in favor of safer alternatives.”

The problem is, no one can prove anything is 100 percent safe. Not surprisingly, Thornton also advocates a “zero discharge” policy, which calls for the elimination of all “bioaccumulative” chemicals. In particular, he has long called for the elimination of chlorine, about which he once noted: “There are no known uses for chlorine which we regard as safe.” More recently, perhaps in recognition that this standard is politically untenable, he suggested that we continue using chlorine for “some pharmaceuticals” and for some “water disinfection,” but only until other options become available.