An important breakthrough in control of toxics occurred during April.
The International Joint Commission (IJC), a government body with
responsibility for environmental quality of the Great Lakes, made far-
reaching official recommendations which, for the first time, embody a
truly modern approach to the identification and control of toxic
chemicals. It appears to be a real first step toward a sustainable
In a nutshell, the IJC now recommends that the U.S. and Canada:
a) Ban incineration in certain areas near the Great Lakes;
b) Phase out the use of chlorine in manufacturing;
c) Adopt a "weight of the evidence" approach, not waiting for
scientific certainty to be established but taking action to protect
against toxics as soon as the "weight of the evidence" indicates the
need for action.
d) Define many chemicals as "persistent toxic substances" and then
ELIMINATE them because recent history tells us persistent toxics cannot
be safely managed.
Although the first two recommendations--ban incineration and phase out
chlorine--are the most startling, it is really the last two
recommendations that constitute a radical departure from the past.
In recommending a "weight of the evidence" approach and in recommending
the elimination of all persistent toxic substances, the IJC has turned
its back on risk assessment and numerical standards. Today risk
assessment and numerical standards form the backbone of the U.S.
regulatory system for controlling toxic substances. The IJC says the
traditional regulatory system has failed and must be abandoned.
In their 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
The IJC now recommends defining a class of chemicals called "persistent
toxic substances," which should then be ELIMINATED because they cannot
be managed safely.
The IJC recommends 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 says.
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.
What is the IJC?
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 6th biennial
report from the IJC, released in April, 1992, contains these far-
U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and its Canadian
counterpart, Environment Canada, must respond to the IJC
recommendations within six months. In the past, many IJC
recommendations have been adopted by the governments of the U.S. and
Canada because IJC recommendations are typically buttressed by many
studies and much data. That is the case with the present
Regarding the Great Lakes environment, the IJC report says, "The
principal problem is the presence and impact of persistent toxic
substances on all sectors of the ecosystem." The report says the old
way of protecting ourselves against these toxic materials has failed:
"...the Commission concludes that attempts to regulate persistent toxic
substances have not resulted in an efficient or successful set of
programs." The IJC report says, "Surely it is time to ask whether we
really want to MANAGE persistent toxic substances after they have been
produced, or whether we want to ELIMINATE and PREVENT their existence
in the ecosystem in the first place."
The report goes on, "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."
The IJC says, "Such a strategy should recognize that all persistent
toxic substances are dangerous to the environment, deleterious to the
human condition, and can no longer be tolerated in the ecosystem,
whether or not unassailable scientific proof of acute or chronic damage
is universally accepted.... Therefore the focus must be on preventing
the generation of persistent toxic substances in the first place,
rather than trying to control their use, release, and disposal after
they are produced."
This is a very important point. The IJC is urging adoption of a "weight
of the evidence" approach to controlling toxics, not waiting until
absolute scientific proof is available because by then it may be too
late. On this point the IJC says:
THE COMMISSION RECOGNIZES THAT SCIENTIFIC DATA ARE OPEN TO
INTERPRETATION AND THAT, NOTWITHSTANDING THE CONFIRMED CAUSE-AND-EFFECT
LINK IN SOME CASES, UNEQUIVOCAL CONCLUSIONS MAY BE DIFFICULT TO REACH
IN OTHERS, ESPECIALLY IF INDIVIDUAL STUDIES ARE CONSIDERED IN
ISOLATION. WITH LOW CONTAMINANT CONCENTRATIONS, SUBTLE EFFECTS AND
POTENTIALLY CONFOUNDING FACTORS, UNEQUIVOCAL EVIDENCE OF INJURY TO
HUMANS BY PERSISTENT TOXIC SUBSTANCES MAY BE DIFFICULT OR IMPOSSIBLE TO
CRITICS HAVE ATTEMPTED TO FIND FLAWS WITH INDIVIDUAL STUDIES IN ORDER
TO DISCREDIT FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS ABOUT PERSISTENT TOXIC
SUBSTANCES. WHILE LIMITATIONS TO STUDY DESIGN MAY EXIST, THIS DOES NOT
NECESSARILY INVALIDATE THE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS WHEN CONSIDERED IN
A WEIGHT-OF-THE-EVIDENCE CONTEXT. AT SOME POINT THE EMERGING MASS OF
DATA AND INFORMATION MUST BE ACCEPTED AS SUFFICIENT TO PROMPT... ACTION
AGAINST ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINANTS
There is abundant evidence that wildlife in the Great Lakes are being
harmed by persistent chemicals, the IJC says. But "Most troubling of
all is the experts' conclusion that humans are being affected as well.
Indeed, they estimate that levels of some of these chemicals measured
in the human population are in the same range, and in some cases even
greater, than those found in adversely affected wildlife populations."
The IJC report points to evidence that fish, birds, and mammals around
the Great Lakes are suffering from thyroid dysfunction, decreased
fertility, decreased hatching success, gross birth defects, metabolic
abnormalities, behavioral abnormalities,
demasculinization/feminization, defeminization/masculinization, and
compromised immune systems. (See RHWN #146, 263, 264.)
The report attributes these diseases and abnormal conditions to
persistent toxic substances like lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs, PAHs
[polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and a broad spectrum of persistent
chlorinated hydrocarbons such as hexachlorobenzene, pentachlorophenol,
furans, and dioxins.
The 1978 Water Quality Agreement adopted "zero discharge" language as a
philosophy, but now the IJC seems bent on turning it into a workable
program. The Commission says "Zero discharge does not mean less than
detectable. It also does not mean the use of controls based on best
available technology, best management practices, or similar means of
treatment that continue to allow the release of residual chemicals."
Zero means zero, and ZERO DISCHARGE means ELIMINATION.
 The recommendation to ban incineration was included in the
International Joint Commission's report, AIR QUALITY IN THE DETROIT-
WINDSOR/PORT HURON-SARNIA REGION (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC:
International Joint Commission, February, [1992).] All other
recommendations that we discuss appear in the IJC's SIXTH BIENNIAL
REPORT ON GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington,
DC: International Joint Commission, April, 1992). Both reports are
available free from the IJC office at 1250 23rd St., NW, Suite 100,
Washington, DC 20440. Telephone: (202) 736-9000. In Canada, phone (519)
Descriptor terms: ijc; great lakes; canada; persistent toxic
substances; regulations; sunsetting; water quality agreement; bans;
zero discharge; us; health; epa; environment canada; precautionary