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Book Reviews

Why Poison Ourselves: A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals
Anne Platt McGinn Washington, DC Worldwatch Institute, Nov. 2000
92 pp., $9.00 (includes shipping), paper
ISBN 1-878071-55-6

Plastics, pesticides, and other products made with synthetic chemicals are basic to daily life in the U.S., and hundreds of new synthetics come into use each year. Some of them are extremely toxic to people and the environment and in many cases even the people who make them don't know how dangerous they ore. Current scientific and regulatory systems aren't working to adequately protect present and future generations from the risks of synthetic chemicals, so new approaches are needed.

Why Poison Ourselves? both examines the problem and describes an additional approach based on the precautionary principle - the idea that unnecessary risk should be avoided. The principle is based on advocates of a chemical proving that its risks are not unreasonable. The author states: "the principle is a kind of insurance polity against our own ignorance." The report focuses on three important industries - paper manufacturing, pesticides, and PVC plastic - to describe both the problem and the impacts of the precautionary principle.

While paper has been made for at least 2,000 years, it's only been for the lad 150 years that mach of it comes from wood fiber. In 1998, 294 million tons of paper were produced worldwide, the majority from wood fiber that also uses bleaches from synthetic chemicals. The chemicals and their chemical reactions can cause significant pollution that affects water, food products, and people. Processes now exist to produce paper with totally chlorine free bleaching which produces excellent quality paper at competitive prices from new plants. However, to retrofit existing plants is an increased cost. The report states that there are two important lessons: (1) the precautionary principle works since risks are eliminated, but (2) the public has to demand and buy the better product. Pesticides are very heavily used in 2.5 million tons a year, mostly from synthetic chemicals.

Despite the enormous quantities of pesticides being used, about thirty percent of worldwide crop harvest is lost to pests. As pesticides are used, pests become resistant, so new pesticides are developed, to which pests become resistant and the "pesticide treadmill" continues. The proven alternative is organic farming and integrated pest management that do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. PVC (polyvinylchloride) is the second mast common plastic after polyethylene, with about 22 to 30 million tons produced each year Various additives to PVC pose special health concerns, especially compounds called phthalates. Those compounds are linked to several reproductive health effects, including reduced fertility, miscarriage, birth defects, abnormal sperm counts and to liver and kidney cancer, and no "safe" level of exposure has been determined.

Two basic approaches are being suggested - to substitute alternative products for PVC and to change the composition of PVC. Any process should also use the precautionary principle to ensure that any "solution" does not create other serious problems.

The author doses the report by advocating that the precautionary principle be used in international` agreements and treaties, in government policies (taxing dangerous chemicals and giving tax breaks), and in corporate practices. But the principle also needs to be incorporated into individual decisions. We need to ask ourselves, do we "need" to consume dangerous synthetic chemicals? She states: "as our knowledge of risks and the alternatives continues to strengthen, it becomes increasingly dear that the answer to that question is no."

- Don Hancock

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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