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#602 - Toxic Turnaround, 10-Jun-1998

The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), working in San Diego,
California, and Tijuana, Mexico, is one of the premier environmental
justice groups in the U.S. Founded in 1980, EHC is a coalition of savvy
citizens, many of them low-income people of color, who started off
fighting toxic contamination in their neighborhoods. As time passed,
they realized that they had to get at the source of these toxic
problems if they were ever going to make any permanent progress. So
they started thinking about how to prevent pollution. Now they have
become experts in the subject, showing others how to get off the toxic

Since 1980, EHC has come a long way, as anyone can see who reads their
new report, TOXIC TURNAROUND.[1] TOXIC TURNAROUND is a step-by-step
guide for local government officials (municipal or county), showing
them how to reduce their agency's reliance on toxic materials --toxic
solvents, cleaning preparations, paints, pesticides, etc.

As this new report shows, local government agencies use toxics just the
way private firms do. Many local governments and private firms maintain
inventories, at any given moment, of roughly 300 pounds of toxic
materials per employee.[1,pg.6] City governments use toxics in
maintaining their fleet of vehicles, for custodial purposes (cleaning,
painting and coating, disinfecting and maintaining buildings), in their
printing plant, and in their public parks (pesticides, and toxics
related to swimming pool maintenance). In a city the size of San Diego,
with 12,400 employees, this means city government maintains a stock of
3.8 million pounds of toxic or hazardous materials at any given moment
(not including the gasoline used in city vehicles). But it doesn't have
to be this way. Local governments can become leaders in reducing the
use of toxic materials. This is important, because a government that is
addicted to toxics isn't in a very strong moral position to urge a
private firm to clean up its act.

EHC is convinced that abandoning toxics is the only way we're ever
going to solve our environment-and-health problems. "Gradually," says
EHC's executive director, Diane Takvorian, "it became apparent to us
that toxics cause health and safety problems in every situation where
they are used, and that better law enforcement and control strategies
are not the whole answer. We need farther-reaching solutions that
reduce society's dependence on toxic chemicals. Because toxic materials
generate pollution and hazards at every stage of their life-cycle --
manufacturing, transportation, incorporation into a product, use of the
product and final disposal --we have come to believe that the best
solution to the problem of toxic pollution is preventing the pollution
in the first place. Eliminating a toxic material eliminates its
problems at every stage."[1,pg.1]

Remarkably, even the federal EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]
has never developed an official prioritized list that tells people
which toxic materials they might want to eliminate first. So EHC has
developed a list of its own, based on toxicity to humans and damage to
the environment. EHC says the top pollution prevention targets are

** Volatile organic compounds (which includes such things as benzene,
toluene, acetaldehyde, xylenes, phenol, formaldehyde, acrolein, acetic
acid, butyric acid, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, ethyl acetate, butyl
acetate, methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, butyl
alcohol, and other hydrocarbons).

** Toxic pesticides, of which there are many.

** Other chlorinated or brominated compounds (for example,
perchloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, para-dichlorobenzene, 1,1,1-
trichloroethane, chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs], etc.).

** Toxic gases, such as chlorine.

** Toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

Reducing the use of toxic materials can pay off in many ways. In
Massachusetts, where a 1989 state law mandated reductions in the use of
toxics, a survey of 434 firms found that 67% of the firms that reduced
their use of toxics saved money on waste disposal and/or materials
during the period 1990-1995. Some 66% of these firms also reported
improvements in worker health and safety. About 45% of the firms
reported reduced compliance requirements. And 27% said that reducing
toxics had given them a marketing advantage.[2]

For governments, the three main areas of cost savings would be:

(a) Reduced cost for materials. Where they will do the job, soap and
water are cheaper than toxic cleaning solutions.

(b) Reduced costs related to worker health problems, including direct
medical costs, worker compensation claims, lost earnings and lost
productivity due to illnesses, plus unquantifiable costs resulting from
reduced quality of life caused by ailments such as headaches and skin

(c) Reduced administrative costs. Governments that reduce their use of
toxic materials can save substantially on management costs. A
government that uses toxic materials in significant quantities probably
generates hazardous wastes as a result. Wastes must be tested to see if
they are hazardous. Any site producing hazardous waste must have a
federal identification number assigned to it, for tracking waste
produced at that site. Hazardous waste must be stored in non-leaking
containers with tight-fitting lids. Containers must be labeled with
waterproof stickers identifying the type of waste. The containers must
be routinely inspected. Incompatible wastes, such as cyanide and acids,
cannot be stored near each other because they might create deadly
hazards if they came in contact with each other. Any site that
generates hazardous waste must have a contingency plan for fires,
explosions, or other unplanned releases of toxic materials. Personnel
must be trained to handle hazardous materials. And on and on. Hazardous
and toxic materials create administrative problems that governments
must solve. It is often simpler --in some cases MUCH simpler --to do
away with the problematic chemicals, thus preventing the headaches and
the administrative overhead.

No doubt about it, pollution prevention saves taxpayer dollars. It is a
way of cutting government costs without sacrificing public service.

Furthermore, there is evidence that reducing the use of toxics can
improve morale among employees because they don't have to worry so much
about conditions on the job, and they begin to feel that their employer
is part of the solution and no longer part of the problem. Toxics use
reduction becomes a source of hope for government employees and for
citizens alike. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, pollution prevention
gives government credibility when it urges the business community to
reduce its use of toxic materials. And it can give government employees
new resolve to pressure the private sector to get off the toxic
treadmill. Government officials begin to think, "Hey, we did it --now
you should too."

If government officials want to take stock of local practices, to see
if it is feasible to reduce their use of toxics materials, they could
start by picking up a copy of this new report.[1] Everything they need
to get started is right here between two covers.

The TOXIC TURNAROUND report includes a half-dozen case studies from
California cities ranging in size from Santa Monica (population:
87,000) and Chula Vista (population: 160,000) to Los Angeles
(population: 3.4 million). Some of the information is really exciting.
For example, the City of San Francisco in late 1996 passed an ordinance
requiring an immediate ban on the most toxic pesticides and a complete
ban on all pesticide use by city government by the year 2000.[1,pg.29]
Giant steps are possible. (The San Francisco ordinance is reprinted as

Because EHC has been working for so long in San Diego, the group is
grounded in all aspects of advocacy. They know what it takes to get
governments to move. So TOXIC TURNAROUND includes everything necessary
for a local government to start to reduce its use of toxic materials.
Pollution prevention starts with a Toxics Use Reduction Policy. No
pollution prevention plan can work unless it becomes official agency
policy. The TOXIC TURNAROUND report offers a Model Pollution Prevention
Policy on pgs. 35-36.

The next step is to identify alternative materials that are less toxic
or non-toxic. TOXIC TURNAROUND offers specific recommendations for:

(a) taking an inventory to find out what toxics are being used;

(b) setting priorities;

(c) examining and selecting alternatives;

(d) setting goals, assigning responsibilities, and scheduling the

(e) evaluating progress.

Chapters 7 through 12 explain in detail how to develop specifications
for the purchasing department, then how to locate sources of less-toxic
or non-toxic cleaning products, disinfectants, pest control agents,
fleet maintenance products, print shop supplies, and swimming pool
chemicals. (Appendix C gives a sample purchasing specification.)

The report ends with an excellent list of printed resources, useful web
sites, and organizations that specialize in specific aspects of
pollution prevention.

Lastly, if your local government isn't quite ready to reduce its own
use of toxic materials, TOXIC TURNAROUND includes a special Appendix D
for citizens: "Organizing to Get Pollution Prevention in Your
Community." How to get your government off the dime.

If we expect firms to shift over to sustainable business practices, our
local governments must show the way. After all, to a large extent,
local governments are us. Municipal and county officials can set the
tone and temper of the discussion around sustainable communities --but
if their own habits and practices aren't sustainable because they are
toxic, who will accept their leadership?

All across the country, local and regional economies are being made
more democratic and more responsive to local needs, as they are being
restructured by community development activists, such as those gathered
under the umbrella of Sustainable America (www.sustamer.org). TOXIC
TURNAROUND from the Environmental Health Coalition[1] offers all these
community development groups, and their local governments, practical
steps they can take to make their local economies more environmentally
sound and sustainable.

Hats off to the Environmental Health Coalition. First-class work from
the grass-roots. Where would we be without them?

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


[1] Joy Williams, Sonya Holmquist and Diane Takvorian, TOXIC TURNAROUND
(San Diego, California: Environmental Health Coalition, 1998).
Available for $28 from EHC, 1717 Kettner Boulevard, Suite 100, San
Diego, CA 92101; telephone (619) 235-0281; fax: (619) 232-3670; E-mail:
ehcoalition@igc.apc.org; or www.environmentalhealth.org.

[2] Monica Becker and Ken Geiser, EVALUATING PROGRESS: A REPORT ON THE
(Lowell, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Toxics
Use Reduction Institute, March, 1997). Available from the Toxics Use
Reduction Institute, One University Avenue, Lowell, MA 01854-2886.
Telephone (508) 934-3275; fax: (508) 934-3050.

Descriptor terms: ehc; environmental health coalition; san diego, ca;
environmental justice; studies; diane takvorian; pollution prevention;
toxics use reduction; guide books; mexico; tijuana;