The long-awaited 7th biennial report of the International Joint
Commission (IJC) was issued last week. The IJC is a government body
with responsibility for maintaining and restoring environmental quality
in the Great Lakes. Past IJC reports have recommended policies that,
taken together, define an entirely new approach to the problem of
persistent toxic substances.
The 7th IJC report once again calls for:
** phase-out ("sunsetting") of all persistent toxic substances from the
Great Lakes ecosystem;
** a ban on the manufacture and use of chlorine;
** an end to reliance on risk assessment;
** a ban on solid waste incineration;
** a reversal of the policy that assumes chemicals are innocent until
** adoption of the principle of precautionary action (which says:
wherever it is acknowledged that a practice could cause harm, even
without conclusive scientific proof that it does cause harm, the
practice should be prevented and eliminated);
** An end to chemical-by-chemical regulation, substituting an approach
that eliminates whole classes of chemicals by "strategically preventing
the formation of the persistent toxic substance in the first place."
The IJC defines toxic substances as anything that 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
concentrating in the food chain or in combination with other
substances." The IJC defines a PERSISTENT toxic substance as one with a
half-life in any medium (air, water, soil, sediment, or living things)
greater than 8 weeks, or one that bioaccumulates in the tissue of
living organisms. The half-life of a substance is the time it takes for
half of the substance to degrade, go away or disappear.
The 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed by the federal
governments of the U.S. and Canada, insists that, "The discharge of
toxic substances in toxic amounts be prohibited and the discharge of
any or all persistent toxic substances be virtually eliminated." In its
SIXTH BIENNIAL REPORT in 1992 the IJC said, "This statement is the
cornerstone of the Agreement."
The 7th IJC report says that "conventional scientific concepts of dose-
response and acceptable 'risk' can no longer be defined as 'good'
scientific and management bases for defining acceptable levels of
pollution. They are outmoded and inappropriate ways of thinking about
persistent toxics," the report says.
"The production and release of [persistent toxic] substances into the
environment must, therefore, be considered contrary to the [1978 Water
Quality] Agreement legally, unsupportable ecologically, and dangerous
to health generally. Above all, they are ethically and morally
unacceptable," the report says. It goes on to stress the need for a
zero discharge policy for persistent toxic substances: "The limits of
allowable quantities of these substances entering the environment must
be effectively zero, and the primary means to achieve zero should be
the prevention of their production, use and release, rather than their
The IJC was created in 1909 by the governments of Canada and the U.S.
to oversee the Boundary Waters Treaty, which guides Great Lakes-related
behavior of the two nations. Starting in 1912, and again in 1945 and
1964 the IJC was asked by the two governments to report on water
quality of the lakes. The studies revealed progressive deterioration.
In 1972 and again in 1978 the two nations signed Water Quality
Agreements aimed specifically at improving water quality in the lakes.
The goal of the 1978 Agreement was broad: "to restore and maintain the
chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great
Lakes Basin Ecosystem." It is up to the IJC to manage and monitor
efforts to achieve the goals of the 1978 Agreement. In 1981, the IJC
began issuing a report every two years, describing the condition of the
lakes in relation to the goals of the 1978 Agreement.
The new (7th) report says, "The theme of this report is that the time
has arrived for a major shift in the way decision-making takes place
for the Great Lakes ecosystem. In particular, society must adopt a
clear and comprehensive action plan to virtually eliminate persistent
toxic substances that are threatening human health and the future of
the Great Lakes ecosystem."
Early in the report, the IJC asks what might happen if people refuse to
control persistent toxic substances? Here is a long, verbatim quotation
from the report:
"We do not know what ALL of the effects of human exposure will be over
many years. Future research will clarify whether low-level and long-
term exposures, repeated exposures, or isolated short-term exposures at
sensitive stages of fetal development are most critical. For the
Commission, however, there is sufficient evidence NOW to infer a real
risk of serious impacts in humans. Increasingly, human data support
"The questions then become: what--if any--risks of injury are we as
individuals and as a society willing to accept? How long can we afford
to wait before we act? Why take any risks of having such potentially
devastating results? In this vein, the Commission poses a number of
other specific but very fundamental questions:
"** What if, as current research suggests, the startling decrease in
sperm count and the alarming increase in the incidence of male genital
tract disorders are in fact caused in part as a result of IN UTERO [in
the womb] exposure to elevated levels of environmental estrogens?
"** What if, as current research suggests, the epidemic in breast
cancer is a result in part of the great numbers and quantities of
estrogen-like compounds that have been and are being released into the
"** What if the documented declining learning performance and
increasing incidence of problem behaviour in school children are not
functions of the educational system? What if they are the result of
exposure to developmental toxicants that have been and are being
released into the children's and parents' environment, or to which they
have been exposed IN UTERO [in the womb]?
"The implications of ANY of the above questions being answered in the
affirmative are overwhelming. The implications of ALL of the above
questions being answered in the affirmative are catastrophic, in terms
of human suffering and the potential liability for that suffering and
attendant health costs. Mounting evidence points to the latter
possibility. Surely, there can be no more compelling self interest to
force us to come to grips with this problem than the spectre of
damaging the integrity of our own species and its entire environment,"
the IJC said.
The new report puts risk assessment into perspective: "Risk assessment
is useful in decision-making, especially in setting action priorities,
but is not directly relevant to the basic virtual elimination
commitment. The Commission does not accept the argument that the
elimination of persistent toxic substances should be subject to a risk-
benefit calculation, as that is not the approach of the [1978 Great
Lakes Water Quality] Agreement," the report says.
Users and producers of persistent toxic substances had told the
Commission that phase-out of toxic substances would cause job loss
outweighing any long-term health benefits. They said risk-benefit
analysis showed that virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances
would not pay. The Commission rejected that argument explicitly,
saying, "to continue resisting a strategy that changes our production
and consumption habits and moves away from reliance on persistent toxic
substances, will be disastrous in the long term from all perspectives."
The Commission called upon industry representatives to stop denying
toxics problems and to focus on solutions: "Representatives of
industry, when presented with evidence of ecosystem health concerns
about substances used in commerce, should react by embracing open
dialogue, data sharing and fact finding, to resolve rather than deny,
concerns and effect an orderly and timely transition to those
solutions," the IJC says.
The Commission called for an end to incineration anywhere in North
America that could affect the Great Lakes: "A growing number of
incinerators operate within the Great Lakes region, contributing
significantly to the load of contaminants, especially from the low-
temperature incineration of industrial, commercial and household refuse
containing plastics and solvents, coated papers and many other
products," the report says. "Any strategy towards virtual elimination
and zero discharge of persistent toxic substances must address the
significant inputs from incineration," the report says. "The Commission
urges the stringent regulation of existing facilities throughout North
America, taking into account the need to ensure the zero discharge of
persistent toxic substances from those stacks to the Great Lakes."
The report calls upon "Governments, industry and labour [to] begin
devising plans to cope with economic and social dislocation that may
occur as a result of sunsetting persistent toxic substances." It calls
upon "Labour unions [to] include in their negotiations the issue of
transition to a sustainable economy without persistent toxic
substances." And it calls upon citizens to get involved: "Citizens
should constantly ask political, social and industrial leaders about
the effects of the use and discharge of pollutants on this and future
generations," the report says, noting that "The patience of many
citizens seems to be near a breaking point."
"Maintaining a healthy society means more than failing to discover
disease," the report says.
GET: International Joint Commission, SEVENTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT
LAKES WATER QUALITY (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International
Joint Commission, 1994), 58 pages, available free from the
International Joint Commission, 1250 23rd Street, N.W., Suite 100,
Washington, DC 20440; telephone: (202) 736-9000.
Descriptor terms: ijc; water quality; water pollution; treaties;
canada; us; regulation; toxic substances; sunsetting; chlorine;
incineration; bans; zero discharge; reverse onus; precautionary
principle; persistence defined;