The IJC (International Joint Commission) has released its 8th biennial
report on water quality in the Great Lakes. The IJC is an
international body created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between
the U.S. and Canada, responsible for water quality in the Great Lakes.
In its 1990, 1992, and 1994 reports, the IJC codified an important new
approach to the control of toxics, calling for zero discharge and the
ELIMINATION of persistent toxic substances. (See REHW #284 and #378.)
The new, 8th report confirms the IJC's commitment to zero discharge and
the elimination of toxics from the Great Lakes ecosystem.
A New Departure: The IJC's Approach to Toxics
In a joint 1978 Water Quality Agreement, 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 in 1992 recommended defining a class of chemicals called
"persistent toxic substances," which should then be ELIMINATED because
they cannot be managed safely.
The IJC recommended that a persistent toxic substance be defined as any
toxic chemical 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). Substances with either of these
characteristics should be ELIMINATED, the IJC said.
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. The IJC recommends that any toxic
substance with a half-life greater than 8 weeks be considered too
dangerous to be released and should be ELIMINATED.
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. The IJC says any toxic substance that bioaccumulates
should be ELIMINATED.
The IJC is recommending a completely new approach to chemical
regulation. The standard way of managing toxics, used today by all
federal and state agencies in the U.S. and Canada, is chemical-by-
chemical risk assessment. This standard approach never bans, or even
regulates, a chemical because of its inherent properties such as
toxicity, persistence, or ability to bioaccumulate. Instead, each
chemical is subjected to a "risk assessment." In a risk assessment,
various assumptions are made about:
** the way the chemical will move through the environment after it has
** which people and wildlife might become exposed to the chemical;
** and, finally, what sorts of toxic effects the chemical might cause
in those exposed to it.
Such "risk assessments" are based on little more than sophisticated
guesswork because so little is known about the ways in which chemicals
move through the environment, the characteristics of the wildlife and
humans that might be exposed, and the mechanisms of toxicity. (As one
U.S. government risk assessor said recently: "Quantitative risk
assessment to a large extent is still based on assumptions. There are a
lot of critical assumptions that go into it that have yet to be
verified biologically." --Ralph L. Kodell, U.S. Food and Drug
Administration.) Furthermore, risk assessments can never be
scientific because all humans and all wildlife are constantly exposed
to several (perhaps several hundred) chemicals simultaneously, and
science has no way to predict the effects of multiple exposures.
Thus risk assessment is a kind of highly-paid intellectual monkey
business, a game played by polluters and government regulators for
their mutual benefit, at great cost to the public and to wildlife.
Because the results of risk assessment SEEM scientific, yet are ALWAYS
subject to challenge, debate and revision (leaving plenty of room for
political needs to be satisfied), risk assessment has become the main
way that "business as usual" is justified, and allowed to proceed.
Politically powerful polluters claim that their "risk assessment" shows
that no harm will result from dumping billions of pounds of toxic
chemicals and products directly into public air and water. Risk
assessments by politically-sensitive government regulators typically
conclude that the polluters cannot be proven grossly wrong, so must be
given a license to proceed with their dumping. Everyone involved claims
his or her work is based on "sound science." In the U.S., this is what
passes for "chemical regulation" at the end of the 20th century.
This system was devised by Congress with the willing participation of
most of the big environmental groups, so almost everyone has a stake in
keeping the system intact, even though no one actually believes it
works. Corporate lawyers and lobbyists spend their lives complaining
that this system stifles creativity, innovation, and the
entrepreneurial spirit, but in reality corporations are able to do
pretty much anything they want (though they DO have to tolerate the
ankle-biting of environmental lobbyists, the way bears eating honey
have to tolerate bees), so long as they file the necessary paperwork
with the regulatory bureaucrats who apply the necessary rubber stamp.
The system amounts to little more than a job-creation program for
corporate lawyers, government bureaucrats and environmental lobbyists.
The IJC's proposal is a new departure, would definitely work, and would
prevent harm. It is clear, simple, and well-defined. Toxic is defined.
Persistent is defined. Bioaccumulative is defined. If a chemical is
toxic and either persistent or bioaccumulative, it should be
eliminated, based on its intrinsic properties. No risk assessment
This is a new direction for environmental management, one that offers
hope that the world can be cleaned up, and that massive pollution can
be PREVENTED at reasonable cost and with minimum bureaucracy. The 8th
IJC report, just released, reaffirms the IJC's commitment to this new
way of doing business:
"Protracted legal battles to remove DDT from use foreshadowed the
continued struggles to reduce environmental contaminants. The time and
resources required to document contamination and injury to establish
linkages between cause and effect has [sic] inhibited action in a
public health policy. A comprehensive approach to all persistent toxic
chemicals is not only the preferred way to protect the integrity of the
ecosystem and public health, but the only effective way," the new
report says (pg. 8).
The 8th report goes on, "New studies are continuing to find various
effects from exposure to persistent toxic substances on fish, wildlife
and humans. Some effects are quite dramatic. Earlier studies are being
re-examined based on new evidence. For example, a recent retrospective
risk assessment suggested that dioxin in Lake Ontario may have caused
complete reproductive failure in native lake trout populations by the
early 1940s. This important fishery has required artificial stocking to
this, day, with mixed results." (pg. 10)
And: "Mounting published evidence indicates that harm to humans from
persistent toxic substances is similar to that caused in wildlife.
Since our last Biennial Report, published studies indicate such harm is
being caused, at least in part, by IN UTERO [in the womb] exposure to
elevated levels of environmental estrogens. A synopsis of research on
endocrinal (hormonal) effects conducted in 1994 by the Danish
Environmental Protection Agency showed that several aspects of human
male reproductive health have declined over the past 30 to 50 years,
including dramatic declines in sperm counts in otherwise healthy men to
levels where fertility may be impaired. (See REHW #438.) Other cited
problems are increased testicular cancer, undescended testis and
genital tract disorders. The authors conclude that disorders seen today
originated 20 to 40 years ago, during fetal and childhood development.
Similarly, chemical influences on male reproductive health in today's
babies may not become apparent for decades." (pg. 10)
"...[t]he emerging picture is not encouraging. The U.S. Agency for
Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is completing studies of
potentially at-risk human populations in the Great Lakes Region, with
fish consumption as the primary route of exposure to chemical
contaminants. One study involved human infants in upper New York State
whose mothers ate Lake Ontario salmon prior to pregnancy. The findings
(preliminarily reported at our 1995 Biennial Meeting) support data of
behavioral abnormalities found 15 years ago in progeny [offspring] of a
similar group of mothers who ate Lake Michigan fish. The higher exposed
infants in New York State were unable to adapt to mild frustration
compared to a less exposed group. These new findings require us to ask
again, what is the wisdom of exposing another generation of human
infants to such toxins?" (pg. 11)
The 8th Report then returns to the subject of chemical-by-chemical,
"The practice of addressing one chemical at a time is a lengthy and
resource-intensive process. The analysis, debate and negotiation over
the risks, impacts and the restrictions for each chemical has
effectively blocked regulation for years. This has been the case for
dioxin, PCBs, DDT, various pesticides and a number of other
"As a society, we cannot continue protracted debate while the actual or
even suspected injury to living species continues to occur. Yet, this
is precisely what occurs and will continue to occur until Governments
address classes of chemicals rather than a few specific chemicals at a
"Approximately 72,000 chemicals are on U.S. EPA's TSCA [Toxic
Substances Control Act] chemicals list, but regulations have been
issued to control only nine new chemicals in 20 years, and the Act's
provisions have not been used to control any existing substances other
"While proposed changes to the [Canadian Environmental Protection] Act
are promising, the most restrictive procedures would be applied to a
relatively small number of listed substances, based in part on risk
assessment rather than their INHERENT TOXICITY....
"Reversing the onus, whereby the proponent manufacturer, importer or
user would have to prove that suspected persistent toxic substances are
not and will not be harmful, is a more reasonable and logical
approach," the 8th IJC report says. (pgs. 15-17)
No doubt about it. This IS a new way of looking at things.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 International Joint Commission, EIGHTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT
LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC: International
Joint Commission, July, 1996). Both reports are available free from the
IJC. Telephone (in Detroit, Michigan): (313) 226-2170. In Canada, phone
(519) 257-6700; fax: (519) 257-6740.
 Kodell quoted in Leslie Lang, "Strange Brew: Assessing Risk of
Chemical Mixtures," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103, No. 2
(February, 1995), pg. 144. Kodell is deputy director of the FDA's
National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas.
Descriptor terms: ijc; regulation; reverse onus; toxic substances; zero
discharge; persistent toxic substances; bioaccumulation; risk
assessment; ralph kodell; ddt; hormone disrupters; great lakes; water
pollution; wildlife; human health; danish environmental protection
agency; sperm count; central nervous system; pesticides; dioxin; pcbs;
tsca; burden of proof;