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#225 - Real Hope For The Great Lakes: Local Groups Form 'Zero Discharge Alliance', 19-Mar-1991

The environmental movement is taking a historic step forward as we
speak. Dozens of local groups calling themselves the Zero Discharge
Alliance have banded together around the Great Lakes pushing a platform
that is simple, yet powerful, far-reaching, and seemingly achievable:
they demand an end to the discharge of persistent and/or
bioaccumulative toxic substances into the Lakes, starting with a ban on
chlorine in the pulp and paper industry. The slogan "zero discharge" is
thus transformed from a theoretical idea developed by scientists like
Pat Costner, Ted Taylor and John Gofman (see RHWN #155) into a workable
program that citizens can campaign to achieve. It seems like an idea
ready to take form and substance in the real world: ban the discharge
of persistent and/or bioaccumulative toxins. But what do these words
mean?

Examples of persistent chemicals are heavy metals such as mercury,
lead, arsenic and cadmium which never break down or degrade because
they are, themselves, elements; they can never turn into anything else
and their poisonous characteristics endure forever. Other examples of
persistent chemicals would include DDT, which has a half-life of
roughly 20 years in the environment. (A substance's "half-life" is the
time it takes for half of that substance to disappear. After 10 half-
lives, approximately one one-thousandth [actually 1/1024] of a
substance remains, so scientists say, as a rule of thumb, that
chemicals persist in the environment for 10 half-lives. Thus DDT, with
a half-life of 20 years, takes 200 years (10 half-lives) to disappear
after it has entered the environment. There are thousands of persistent
toxic chemicals and they are dangerous because they remain available
for such a long time to poison plants, animals and humans.

A bioaccumulative chemical is one that moves from the non-living
environment (air, water, soil) into living things with an increase in
concentration. For example, a chemical like DDT may appear in air or
water at levels that seem harmless (a few parts per trillion) yet may
end up in living things at concentrations that cause cancer or
interfere with reproduc-tion. See Figure 1, which shows how the
concentration of DDT is magnified 10 million times between water and
birds in Long Island Sound. Three parts per trillion (ppt) in water
produces 25 parts per million, a toxic concentration, in fish-eating
birds (ospreys).

[Omitted from this version: Figure 1. An example of bioaccumulation:
The concentration of DDT in living organisms is magnified approximately
10 million times in a food chain of Long Island Sound. Dots represent
DDT and arrows show small losses through respiration and excretion.
From: G. Tyler Miller Jr., LIVING IN THE ENVIRONMENT Third Edition
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982), pg. 93.]

Bioaccumulative toxins are dangerous because amounts that seem harmless
are multiplied as they pass through the food chain; often the result is
environmental destruction. The adverse consequences of bioaccumulative
toxins may become understood only after it is too late. For example,
human breast milk is now contaminated with hundreds of persistent,
bioaccumulative toxins (see RHWN #193), but the effects of these
poisons upon breast-fed infants is not known except in rare cases. Such
dousing of infant children with persistent, bioaccumulative toxins is a
massive experiment; the full results may become known in the future,
but one thing is known beyond any doubt today: it cannot help the human
species to expose it from birth onward to a constant bath of industrial
toxins. (People who are tempted to think that the human species might
be improved by random meddling with our genetic structure should remind
themselves that a human is something like a TV set [though of course
much more complex] and the hope of improving a human by randomly
introducing poisons into its diet at an early age is like splashing hot
solder into a TV set's electronic circuits hoping to improve the
picture.)

It is important to note that many of the most toxic, persistent, and
bioaccumulative chemicals are formed by the use of the element
chlorine. DDT, PCBs, dioxins, CFCs, and many pesticides are chlorine
compounds. Most people know of chlorine because it disinfects their
drinking water, kills germs in the local swimming pool, or bleaches
their clothes in the washing machine. Unfortunately, when it is used by
industry, chlorine produces a broad spectrum of toxins that persist in
the environment and bioaccumulate. In a very real sense, chlorine lies
at the heart of the toxics problem, world-wide.

For two decades, government has tried to control toxic pollutants one
at a time, by establishing the exact amount that could be safely
released into the environment, issuing "permits" giving industry
permission to discharge toxics into air and water, then trying to
police the polluters to force compliance with the permitted limits. The
entire effort was foolish from the start: there are over 40,000
chemicals in use today and 1000 to 2000 new ones enter commercial
channels each year. Meanwhile during its 20-year effort, government has
managed to establish "safe" limits for fewer than 100 chemicals.
Meanwhile, government has gone ahead and issued permits that ignored
most chemicals entirely (because there was no basis for saying how much
was safe). Finally, government never showed any real interest (or
ability) in enforcing these silly per-mits. A classic house of cards.
This wrong-headed effort at pollution control (instead of pollution
prevention) has led to massive damage to wildlife throughout the Great
Lakes (see RHWN #146) and, worldwide, a dangerous accumulation of
toxics in creatures that eat at the top of the food chain, like large
birds, large fish, bears, and humans.

It is now crystal clear that the old way has been a complete failure,
which, if it is continued, can only lead to the extinction of humans.

The alternative to chemical-by-chemical regulation is zero discharge, a
sweeping ban on the release of persistent, bioaccumulative toxins.

How could such a sweeping ban become politically acceptable? That is
the nut the Zero Discharge Alliance seems to have cracked.

The Alliance has a three-point Great Lakes program they say is the
first step toward a total ban on discharges of persistent,
bioaccumulative toxins.

Point 1: Ban the use of chlorine in the pulp and paper industry around
the Great Lakes.

Point 2: Because incinerators are the fastest-growing technology that
spews persistent, bioaccumulative toxics into the environment, ban all
new incinerators that affect the Great Lakes.

Point 3: All new discharge permits that government issues to industry
(for chemical-by-chemical control) must contain "sunset" provisions
that establish fixed dates for the phase-out of toxic chemical
discharges and for changing those industrial processes that contribute
to persistent toxic pollution. No industry has a right to pollute.

The Alliance is working in the Great Lakes but these ideas will surely
spread. (More on this later.)

For further information, contact: Zero Discharge Alliance (ZDA), P.O.
Box 32246, Detroit, MI 48232, or ZDA, P.O. Box 7243, Windsor, Ontario
N9C 3Z1.

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: zero discharge; great lakes; ddt; zero discharge
alliance; citizen activism;