Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#611 - Bad News From The IJC, 12-Aug-1998

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was created by treaty between
the U.S. and Canada in 1909, to resolve problems in the Great Lakes.
Since 1972, the IJC has been working aggressively to improve water
quality in the Lakes, with some success. Initially the concern was
phosphorus, a farm fertilizer that can degrade water quality by causing
excessive growth of algae and other plants, thus depleting the oxygen
supply for fish. The IJC --and the two national governments that it
represents --tackled the phosphorus problem and made considerable
progress. However in 1978 the IJC began to focus on another, more
difficult, problem: persistent toxic chemicals injuring wildlife and
humans in and around the Great Lakes.[1,pg.7]

In their joint Water Quality Agreement of 1978, the U.S. and Canada
defined a "toxic substance" as "a substance which can cause death,
disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations,
physiological or reproductive malfunctions or physical deformities in
any organism or its offspring, or which can become poisonous after
concentration in the food chain or in combination with other
substances."

The IJC subsequently adopted a definition of a "persistent toxic
substance:" any toxic substance that bioaccumulates, or any toxic
chemical that has a half-life greater than eight weeks in any medium
(water, air, sediment, soil, or living things).

The "half life" of a substance is the time it takes for half of it to
disappear. For example, DDT has a "half-life" of about 20 years in
soil; if a pound of DDT is released into soil today, half of it will
still exist 20 years from now.

A substance bioaccumulates if its concentration increases as it moves
through the food chain. For example, DDT may be found at one ppm (part
per million) in fish and at 10 ppm in fish-eating birds. Thus DDT
bioaccumulates.

In Annex 12 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978
(amended), the IJC defined persistent toxic substances to include
these: DDT and its metabolites (including DDE), aldrin and dieldrin,
chlordane, endrin, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide, lindane,
methoxychlor, mirex, toxaphene, phthalic acid esters, polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs), plus the metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper,
iron, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, zinc, and fluoride, and other
"unspecified organic compounds." (See www.ijc.org/agree/quality.html.)

During the period 1988 to 1992, under the leadership of Republican
Gordon Durnil [see REHW #423, #424, #453], the IJC developed an
approach to persistent toxic substances that seemed commensurate with
the size and nature of the problem. The Commission turned its back on
risk assessment and on numerical standards, instead calling for the
ELIMINATION of persistent toxic substances. In its 6th biennial report
in 1992, the IJC wrote,

"It is clear to us that persistent toxic substances have caused
widespread injury to the environment and to human health. As a society
we can no longer afford to tolerate their presence in our environment
and in our bodies.... Hence, if a chemical or group of chemicals is
persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative, we should immediately begin a
process to eliminate it. Since it seems impossible to eliminate
discharges of these chemicals through other means, a policy of banning
or sunsetting their manufacture, distribution, storage, use and
disposal appears to be the only alternative." The IJC defines
"sunsetting" as "a comprehensive process to restrict, phase out, and
eventually ban the manufacture, generation, use and disposal of a
persistent toxic substance." (See www.ijc.org/comm/6bre.html and REHW
#284.)

In its 7th and 8th biennial reports, in 1994 and 1996, the IJC
confirmed and deepened its commitment to the ELIMINATION of toxic
substances as the only way to solve the problems they create. (See
www.ijc.org/comm/7bre.html and www.ijc.org/comm/8bre.html.) Last month
the IJC released its 9th biennial report[1] and once again reaffirmed
its commitment to the elimination of persistent toxic substances from
the Great Lakes ecosystem. The new report says,

"The first evidence of injury by persistent toxic substances was
reported more than 50 years ago."[1,pg.9]

The new report says that progress was made by banning the most obvious
offenders, such as DDT and PCBs, but "evidence [has] continued to build
of subtle, more insidious injury, especially neurobehavioural injury
resulting from endocrine disruption during fetal development. In
addition to substances already identified, others also may cause
injury. Among chemicals widely distributed in our environment and
reported to have endocrine-disrupting effects are pesticides such as
atrazine, alachlor and methoxychlor as well as industrial chemicals
such as phthalates, which are used as plasticizers. [See REHW #603.]
Among the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on fish and
wildlife are behavioural abnormality, compromised immune system and sex
change.... Thus, despite improvements, society has not yet gone far
enough. Contaminant body-burdens remain a concern --injury is still
occurring...," the new IJC report says.[1,pg.10]

The new report goes on: "Most disturbing is increasing evidence that
persistent toxic substances also injure human beings. The first warning
signals of human injury by chemicals at levels present in the ambient
environment were raised more than a decade ago, when results were
published on a study of women who consumed Lake Michigan fish prior to
giving birth. As a result of prenatal exposure to PCBs, the infants of
these mothers had lower weight and smaller head circumference at birth,
as well as shorter gestational age and poorer neuromuscular
development. As they grew, other injury was identified and reported,
primarily related to memory, IQ, attention, and learning and
behavioural problems."[1,pg.10]

The new report goes on: "The evidence is overwhelming: certain
persistent toxic substances impair human intellectual capacity, change
behaviour, damage the immune system and compromise reproductive
capacity. The people most at risk are children, pregnant women, women
of childbearing age and people who rely on fish and wildlife as a major
part of their diet. Particularly at risk are developing embryos and
nursing infants," the new report says[1,pg.10]

The report goes on, "INJURY HAS OCCURRED IN THE PAST, IS OCCURRING
TODAY AND, UNLESS SOCIETY ACTS NOW TO FURTHER REDUCE THE CONCENTRATION
OF PERSISTENT TOXIC SUBSTANCES IN THE ENVIRONMENT, INJURY WILL CONTINUE
IN THE FUTURE. THE FACT THAT SUCH INJURY IS OCCURRING, COUPLED WITH A
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT OTHER, AS YET UNRECOGNIZED, EFFECTS IS A CALL
FOR ACTION BY ALL [GREAT LAKES] BASIN STAKEHOLDERS TO MINIMIZE AND
ELIMINATE INJURY." [Emphasis in the original.][1,pg.11]

The new report notes with obvious approval, "In its SIXTH BIENNIAL
REPORT, the Commission concluded 'that persistent toxic substances are
too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in
ANY quantity.'" And: "The Commission was quiet emphatic that 'zero
discharge means just that: halting all inputs from all human sources
and pathways and to prevent any opportunity for persistent toxic
substances to enter the environment as a result of human
activity.'"[1,pg.12]

That is the good news. The IJC is sticking to its principles:
persistent toxic substances cannot be managed, but must be eliminated.
If persistent toxicants are not eliminated, people and wildlife will
continue to be poisoned.

But there is bad news in the report as well: Public concern about the
environment remains high, but industrial corporations, and the
governments they largely control, have dug in their heels and have
killed progress toward cleaning up the Great lakes.

The new report says, "Public opinion polls continually show that people
support a clean environment, but governments appear to be less
receptive and responsive to advice and to the wishes of their citizens
regarding the environment. Opposition to further environmental measures
--indeed to retaining successes to date --is mounting."[1,pg.13]

The new report says, "The ability of governments at all levels to
deliver... is being stressed, and programs to restore and protect the
Great Lakes have drastically slowed or halted, especially initiatives
for Areas of Concern [specific pollution hotspots identified by the IJC
in the early 1990s] and those directed toward persistent toxic
substances...."[1,pg.18]

As a consequence of opposition by industrial corporations and
governments (federal, state, and provincial), "Energy and interest are
flagging. Funding and resource cutbacks for environmental programs and
supporting science have a domino effect on the public's sense of
empowerment and mood."[1,pg.13]

The new report goes on, "Recent budget cuts have resulted in wholesale
elimination of surveillance and monitoring programs, especially
tributary programs in several major watersheds. Consequently, it is
impossible to make [pollution] load estimates, even for phosphorus,
suspended solids and other contaminants."[1,pg.34]

Indeed, the new 9th biennial report from the IJC is all but an
admission of defeat: "Despite years of effort to stop inputs, clean up
contamination and eliminate the use of chemicals that have long been
known to cause injury, all remain widespread in the ecosystem and many
continue to be used," the IJC says.[1,pg.7]

The IJC says that the public is asking, "Why are we unable to
effectively deal with these persistent toxic substances?" The
citizenry, which is eager to stop the poisoning, now has a sense of
"hopelessness or disengagement," the IJC says.[1,pg.6]

Unfortunately, the new report never clearly states what has gone wrong,
even though most people grasp the situation quite well. Industrial
corporations are simply refusing to eliminate persistent toxic
substances.[2] Furthermore, elected officials, who are reliant on
corporations and corporate elites for campaign contributions, have
created agencies, such as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that
are enforcing the law less and less while relying more and more on
"voluntary compliance" by industrial corporations. Wink, wink. Thus,
the industrial corporations have succeeded in derailing progress toward
cleaning up the Great Lakes, and indeed the larger environments of the
U.S. and Canada.[3]

Because environmental advocacy organizations, for the most part, refuse
to tackle the power relationships that block environmental progress,
environmental progress remains impossible, and the public is
(understandably) less and less supportive of an ineffective
environmental community. Because no one is tackling the real problem,
the public disengages. We are spiraling downward, with no end in sight.
Until the environmental community decides to focus on the real source
of our problems --the unseemly power of corporations over every aspect
of our society --and builds coalitions to challenge the raw power of
corrupt money, we will get nowhere. This is not rocket science.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Leonard Legault and others, NINTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT LAKES
WATER QUALITY (Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Ontario: International
Joint Commission, 1998). Available free from: International Joint
Commission, 1250 23rd Street, N.W., Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20440;
telephone (202) 736-9000. In Ottawa, Canada, phone (613) 995-2984.

[2] Linda Greer and Christopher van Loben Sels, "When Pollution
Prevention Meets the Bottom Line," ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Vol. 31, No. 9 (September 1997), pgs. 418A-422A.

[3] Gar Alperovitz and others, INDEX OF ENVIRONMENTAL TRENDS; AN
ASSESSMENT OF TWENTY-ONE KEY ENVIRONMENTAL INDICATORS IN NINE
INDUSTRIALIZED COUNTRIES OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES (Washington, D.C.:
National Center for Economic Alternatives, 1995).

Descriptor terms: ijc; pollution prevention; zero discharge; great
lakes; canada; persistent toxic substances; regulations; sunsetting;
water quality agreement; bans; us; health; precautionary principle;
epa;