The Witches' Caldron: Toxic Pollution
To date, we humans have synthesized seven million artificial chemical compounds. Most have been noted only once in the chemical literature. Many are released deliberately into the environment precisely because they are toxic -- to kill weeds, trees, and insects. About 70,000 are now in common use, almost all of them toxic. We continue to introduce over 1,500 new chemical compounds each year.
The number and quantity of chemicals in common use boggle the imagination. Industry produced seven times more goods in 1990
than in 1960, and global production of organic chemicals increased from 1 million tons per year in the 1930s to 250 million tons in 1985. Annual production is now doubling every seven to eight years.
Because of addictive consumption, the rich countries cause 100 to 1,000 times more pollution per capita than people in the
developing world. The US population, a mere 5 percent of the world total, creates half of the world's toxic waste of about 500 million metric tons each year.
Dangerous chemicals are found in almost every household article. Carcinogens are used to dry-clean clothes, and traces of
chemicals often remain on the garments when we collect them from the shop -- you can actually smell them. Paints and thinners are supplemented with toxic chemicals designed to discourage fungal growth or act as quick drying agents. Cancer-causing chemicals are used to kill termites, cockroaches, and insects in homes, offices, schools, hospitals, and restaurants. Cleaners and deodorizers contain toxic chemicals, as do garden pesticides and fungicides. Toxic fumes emanate from synthetic carpets, furnishings, and curtains. Carcinogenic formaldehyde leaches into the air from certain types of insulation and fabrics used in walls and ceilings.
Disposal of Toxics
What happens to toxic chemicals after we have finished using them? Their disposal poses an enormous problem. Garbage now is
dangerous because of the chemicals that go into it. We throw household cleaners, insecticides, spray cans, mothballs, paint thinners, bleaches, ballpoint pens, floor cleaners, plastics, detergents, oil, dry-cleaning chemicals, window cleaners, dioxin contained in white cardboard and paper, batteries containing lead and acid, cars containing heavy metals, plastics, and oil, and refrigerators containing CFC gas, to name a few, into the
garbage. The US population each year discards 16 billion diapers, 1.6 billion pens, 2 billion razor blades, and 220 million car tires, along with enough aluminum to rebuild the US commercial airline fleet four times over.
The obvious solution to our dilemma is to use cloth diapers, nondisposable razors, recyclable glass bottles for milk and drinks (bottles that are not melted down and remade but that are washed and used time and again), bicarbonate of soda and vinegar for cleaning, ordinary soap instead of detergent, fountain pens rather than throw-away ballpoint pens, and biologically safe pesticides. We must build mass transit systems and use bicycles. In other words, we need not stay on this treadmill of addiction
to hazardous consumption.
Toxic Time Bombs
Municipal garbage dumps leach toxins into underground aquifers and nearby rivers and streams, thereby endangering wildlife and
the human food chain. So dangerous was municipal waste in 1990 that more than half the hazardous waste dumps flagged by the congressionally appointed Superfund were municipal garbage dumps and landfills. The other hazardous sites were filled with toxic chemical waste from industry.
Eight out of 10 Americans live near a hazardous waste site. There are 15,000 uncontrolled hazardous-waste landfills and 80,000 contaminated lagoons in the United States. The Chemical Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, also known as "Cancer Alley," with more than 100 chemical plants and refineries, represents the highest concentration of
manufacturers, users, and disposers of toxic chemicals in the United States. Millions of pounds of toxic chemicals go directly into the Mississippi river each year.
The infamous Love Canal toxic dump, a legacy of the
petrochemical industry, is but one of thousands of tragedies about to become manifest all over the country. Some 1,275 hazardous waste sites are on the EPA's priority list, which means that they are eligible for "cleanup" under the Superfund legislation using federally allocated funds. The cost of cleaning up these sites is estimated at $40 billion.
The US government is the nation's chief polluter; federal facilities discharge almost 2.5 million tons of toxic and radioactive waste without having to report a drop. According to the General Accounting Office, 95 percent, or 200 million tons, of all chemical pollution is still unreported because the federal government is exempt from reporting, the EPA is too weak in law enforcement, and the law has too many loopholes. There are also 14,401 potentially contaminated toxic dump sites at Department of
Defense facilities and the weapon manufacturing plants scattered around the United States.
Despite this grave situation, industrial pollution is
increasing. In 1987, some 10.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air, water, and soil of the United States, and more than half of the chemicals dumped into the country's waterways are not covered by EPA regulations. In Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Dow Chemical and other companies are buying out neighboring communities and moving people instead of reducing pollution.
Huge fuel storage tanks buried at gas stations are also sources of a disturbing amount of underground pollution. Constructed of steel, they rust over time. Of the 1.4 million underground gas tanks, 15 percent are leaking. It takes just two pints of gasoline or oil to contaminate several million gallons of drinking water. According to some estimates, one-third of the underground aquifers of the United States have been polluted with carcinogenic benzene or chemicals from these and other sources.
Airborne toxins are also a frightening consequence of our modern industrial society. St. Gabriel, a town on the Mississippi river,
is host to 26 petrochemical factories, which belch 400 million pounds of chemicals, including carcinogenic benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, toluene, and ethylene oxide, into the air each year.
Need Christians and churches be concerned about the toxic soup we are in? What more has to happen before the time for active involvement and action is right?
Dioxin: Toxic, Deadly By-Product
"Dioxin" is a shorthand name for the chemical 2,3,7,8, tetrachloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. It is also used as a common name for the entire family of dioxins and furans, which number 210 in total. Seventeen of these can be considered "super-toxic."
Dioxin is the most toxic anthropogenic substance known to science. It has been the culprit in many of the most disastrous environmental cases, including Times Beach, Missouri; Love Canal, New York; Seveso, Italy; and Vietnam ("Agent Orange"). Dioxin is one of a larger class of compounds known as "organochlorines." Organochlorines are formed when chlorine binds with carbon in organic (carbon-containing) matter, in a reactive environment such as industrial production processes or incinerators.
Organochlorines tend to be very long-lived, or persistent, in the environment. This class of chemicals also tends to be toxic, even in very small quantities; organochlorines also tend to bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms.
Dioxin, unlike some other 11,000 organochlorines manufactured for commercial sale by the world's chemical industry, is never
intentionally produced. It is the by-product of many chemical, manufacturing, and combustion processes. Any use of chlorine in industrial processes, including incineration, chemical and plastic manufacturing, paper and pulp bleaching, or burning hazardous waste in cement kilns, results in dioxin formation.
Sources of Dioxin
It is only because chlorine chemistry and its products have become so widespread that dioxin formation has become ubiquitous over the last 50 years. Virtually all chlorine-related products
and processes are associated with dioxin formation at some point in their life cycle. The many industrial processes in which the formation of dioxins and related compounds has been identified are shown in the box below.
The three major sources of dioxin are incineration, pulp and paper, and PVC plastic. Garbage and medical waste incinerators are the largest identified sources. Pulp and paper mills form and release dioxin when they use chlorine gas and other chlorinated chemicals to bleach wood pulp white, making the paper industry the largest source of dioxin discharges directly to waterways and one of the largest dioxin-producing sectors overall. PVC, throughout its lifecycle, results in more dioxin formation than
any other single product.
Dioxin is formed in chemical plants when a wide range of chlorinated organic chemicals is manufactured -- including pesticides, solvents, chemical intermediaries, and feedstocks for the plastic PVC. Study the summary of processes (page 4) to get a grasp of the variety of processes that give rise to dioxin and related compounds.
How Are People Exposed to Dioxin?
Human exposure occurs through diet, with foods from animals being the predominant pathway. Study the diagram on how dioxin enters
the body. Over 90 percent of the persistent organochlorines we ingest come from the food we eat. Because these chemicals are stored in body fat and build up through the food chain, the highest levels in our food are found in meats, fish, and dairy products. Fruits and vegetables sprayed with organochlorine pesticides also may contain high levels.
People then ingest dioxin through the meat, dairy products, fish and eggs they consume. One expert estimates that the average daily intake of dioxin is "at least 50 times greater than what EPA estimates is a virtually safe dose of dioxin."
People with the highest exposures eat more fish, live near a dioxin source or eat food produced near a dioxin source. Children and breast-fed babies receive the greatest exposure because of the smaller size of their bodies.
Exposure: A Significant Public Health Issue
EPA released a six-volume, 2,400-page "Dioxin Reassessment" in 1994. This report states that levels of dioxin currently existing in humans have reached a body burden (level of dioxin in the human body) that will cause such adverse health effects as cancer, reproductive and hormonal disruptions, birth defects, impaired child development, diabetes, altered male sexual behavior, and immune system suppression. (For health effects, see page 7.)
Summary of processes that form dioxin and related chemicals
- Production of chlorine gas
Chlorine electrolysis with graphite electrodes
Chlorine electrolysis with titanium electrodes
- Chemical industry
--use of chlorine gas
Chlorinated aromatic chemicals -- manufacture (chlorobenzenes,
chlorophenols, PCBs, others)
Pesticides, dyes, specialty chemicals
Chlorinated solvents -- manufacture (trichloroethylene,
tetrachloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride)
PVC plastic --manufacture of feedstocks (ethylene dichloride,
Production wastes, effluent, sludge from effluent treatment,
air emissions, PVC plastic products
Other aliphatic organochlorines -- manufacture
Some inorganic chlorides --manufacture (ferric and copper
chlorides, sodium hypochlorite)
- Use of Chlorine gas
Pulp and paper -- chlorine bleaching,Mill effluent, mill
sludge, pulp and paper products, emissions from sludge
Water and waste water disinfection
Refined metals -- manufacture with chlorine
- Use of organochlorines
Manufacture of chlorine-free chemicals with chlorinated
intermediates (nitrophenols,parathion, others)
Degreasing/extraction with organochlorine solvents of alkaline
or reactive environments
Oil refining with organochlorine catalysts
Use of pesticides with heat (wood treatment)
Iron/steel sintering with organochlorine cutting oils,
solvents, or plastics
Burning gasoline or diesel fuel with organochlorine additives
Use of chlorine-based bleaches & detergents in washing
machines and dishwashers
- Incineration, Recycling, and Fires (primary dioxin precursor in parenthesis)
Medical waste incinerators (PVC) -- air emissions
Municipal waste incinerators (PVC) -- air emissions, ash residues
Hazardous waste incinerators (solvents, chemical manufacturing
wastes) -- air emissions, ash residues
Cement kilns burning hazardous waste (solvents, chemical
manufacturing wastes) -- air emissions, cement kiln dust
Accidental fires in homes and offices (PVC)
Fires at industrial facilities (PVC, PCBs, other chlorinated
Aluminum recycling/smelting (PVC)
Steel & automobile recycling/smelting (PVC)
Copper cable recycling/smelting (PVC)
Wood burning (pentachlorophenol wood preservatives, PVC)
Transformation of chlorophenols to dioxins in the environment
Chlorine: The Everywhere Element
Chlorine chemistry starts with ordinary salt -- sodium chloride, a stable and natural substance that flows constantly through the ecosystem and our bodies. The chemical industry creates chlorine gas by passing electricity through saltwater, splitting the salt molecule and fundamentally changing the character of the chlorine in it.
Unlike the chlorine in salt, chlorine gas is an extremely reactive and poisonous substance that rarely occurs in nature. It bonds quickly with organic matter to form a new class of chemicals called "organochlorines."
Most chlorine gas is combined with petrochemicals to produce organochlorine products, including plastics (especially polyvinyl chloride -- PVC -- or vinyl), pesticides, solvents, and other chemicals. About 15 percent of chlorine gas is sold for use outside the chemical industry, primarily as a bleach in the production of paper. Only one percent is used to disinfect drinking water.
Over 11,000 different organochlorines are manufactured today, used in products ranging from pesticides and plastics to
toothpaste and mouthwash. On top of that, their production and use produces thousands more unwanted organochlorine by-products. For example, dioxins result from the manufacture of PVC.
The most volatile persistent organochlorines, like the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and some solvents, rise into the upper
atmosphere where they deplete the ozone layer. The less volatile chemicals evaporate more slowly, remain airborne for a while, then eventually fall to the surface. Some are deposited near their origins, while others circulate globally, carried by air currents for thousands of miles before depositing onto rivers, lakes, seas, vegetation, and soils. Once they fall to the surface of the planet, some portion enters the food chain.
Organochlorines deposit to a greater extent in colder regions. This phenomenon, "global distillation," is a factor in the unexpectedly high organochlorine concentrations observed in the air, seawater, plankton, wild animals, and people in the Arctic region.
Organochlorines dissolve in fat and build up in the fatty tissues of creatures exposed to them. Through a process known as bioaccumulation, fish accumulate levels of organochlorines in their tissues thousands of times higher than levels in the surrounding water. Thus, organochlorines build up through the food chain and reach the highest levels in animals at the top of the chain such as marine mammals and humans.
News from the Eco-Justice Working Group
of the National Council of Churches of Christ
Climate Change Petition: The Working Group is participating vigorously in the petition drive spearheaded by the World Council of Churches in industrialized nations to collect signatures of
church people expressing a concern about climate change. There is now strong scientific consensus that the atmosphere is warming as a result of human activity. This fact implies serious environmental, social, and economic consequences.
The signatories of the petition in the United States are asking the government to fulfill their promise at the Rio Earth Summit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, to take other measures toward greater reduction in emissions after the year 2000, and to initiate in a more forceful way public debate on the risks of climate change.
A press conference by Dr. Joan Campbell, NCC General
Secretary, in Washington, D.C., on July 16 was the kick-off date for our petition drive. For copies of the petition, contact Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202. Ph. 502-569-5807. Return completed petitions to him by January 1, 1997.
Endangered Species Act: The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has protected many species in the US since 1972. The act has been under attack in this Congress. The Working Group prepared a bulletin insert and an action alert about the ESA and shared them with congregations before Earth Day Sabbath last April. The letters to congresspersons were influential in stopping the "negative" bills from coming to the House or Senate floor. But
it's not all over yet.
A six-minute video, "Caring for Creation," is available for $4.50 from the Eco-Justice Working Group, Room 572, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115 (checks payable to NCC). The video likens the Endangered Species Act to a modern day Noah's Ark and makes a compelling case for the care of this portion of God's creation. It concludes by asking the audience to contact their senators and congresspersons.