The use of toxic chemicals is more common and more unnecessary than
most people think. The names are familiar: carbon tetrachloride,
trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, benzene, and so forth. These
chemicals are useful and relatively cheap. Unfortunately, they are also
hard to contain and, when they escape, dangerous. Many of these
chemicals cause cancer, but they also cause deterioration of the
central nervous system, headaches, lethargy, seizures, and a wide range
of other nonlethal but serious effects.
A startling array of American industries are now using such chemicals.
We recently compiled a 288-page book entitled WHAT CHEMICALS EACH
INDUSTRY USES, which lists, industry by industry, what toxic chemicals
each type of industry has reported using. (The reporting occurred under
the New Jersey right to know law, but NJ industries are no different
from industries elsewhere, so the NJ reveal something about industry
everywhere.) Industries are designated by "standard industrial
classification" (SIC) codes. The most benign-sounding industries now
use toxic chemicals. For example, the manufacture of dolls and stuffed
toys (SIC 3942) uses substantial quantities of 1,1,1-trichloroethane,
dichloromethane, trichloroethylene, toluene, and tetrachloroethylene.
The "chocolate and cocoa products" industry (SIC 2066) uses carbon
tetrachloride, diethyl ether, acetone, chloroform, 1,1,1-
trichloroethane, xylenes, toluene, lead acetate, and a long list of
other toxics. And so it goes, industry by industry. These lists do not
even include the use of plastics because plastics themselves are not
reportable under right to know laws; they are not considered
particularly dangerous to humans. The impression that one gets from
these lists is that American industry is saturated with toxics. One
wonders, did we have stuffed toys and chocolate bars before we had
toxic chemicals to make them with? Of course we did.
Barry Commoner has argued that, with few exceptions, the entire
petrochemical industry, at least on its present scale, is largely
unnecessary. The consumer products created with petrochemicals have
replaced earlier items made with naturallyoccurring materials. Products
made from cotton, wood, leather, paper, glass and metal have now been
replaced by synthetic materials made from petroleum. We could still
return to these earlier kinds of products with little or no loss in
"quality of life."
Industry may argue that we do not need to reduce the use of toxic
materials, we simply need to manage them better and discharge a smaller
fraction of them to the environment. This is what "waste reduction" is
all about--use the same amount of toxics but dump less of them into the
Unfortunately, waste reduction will not suffice. The production of
synthetic organic chemicals is increasing by a factor of 10 every 35
years; American industry produced 50 billion pounds in 1950 and 500
billion pounds in 1985. There is no sign of a letup in this steady rate
of growth. At this growth rate, the use of synthetic organics will grow
by a factor of 100 within one human lifetime (70 years). It must be
obvious to everyone that the earth cannot sustain such an increase.
Even aggressive waste reduction will not do the job. In an eye-opening
move, the Monsanto Chemical Corporation recently announced that they
plan to reduce their toxic discharges to the environment by 90% in the
early 1990s. (NY TIMES Nov. 13, pg. F3). Monsanto is saying that, by
the mid-'90s, its waste production will be only 10% of what it was in
1987. This a laudable waste reduction goal. Unfortunately, even if all
industries could achieve Monsanto's goal quickly, which is very
unlikely, within 35 years we would be right back where we are today
because total output will have grown by a factor of 10. Thirty-five
years later our situation would be 10 times worse than it is today,
which would clearly be intolerable. Therefore, we can see that simply
restricting discharges, even by drastic cuts like 90%, will not solve
our problems. We will have to reduce the total use of toxic materials,
not just their discharge into the environment at manufacturing sites.
Thus we can see that waste reduction is the wrong goal. We must aim to
reduce the use of toxics.
Reducing the use of toxics is going to require new approaches. We have
already discussed two. In RHWN #102 we advocated a tax on toxics; in
#105 we advocated zero discharge, or "no dumping allowed" (an idea
already embodied in the Clean Water Act of 1972 [33 U.S.C. 1371(b)]
which stated the goal as, "discharge of pollutants into the [nation's]
navigable waters will be eliminated by 1985").
If industry wants to argue that zero discharge is not achievable, that
some fraction of all toxics will always be released into the
environment, then our only remaining option is to reduce the use of
How can we reduce the use of toxics?
The use of certain chemicals will have to be banned. As Barry Commoner
has pointed out (RHWN #30), the only time we have seen significant
reductions in environmental contamination by individual chemicals is
when they have been banned. An international treaty banned atmospheric
dumping of strontium-90 through weapons tests; DDT use has been banned
in the U.S.; PCB production has been banned. Now the levels of these
toxins in air, water and human tissue are decreasing markedly. Banning
chemicals is effective. Furthermore, the legal authority for banning
chemicals already exists in federal law: the Toxic Substances Control
Act (TSCA; 15 USC 2601; P.L. 94-469), Sections 6 and 7.
We can offer industry a wide range of carrots and sticks to force
reduction in the use of toxics. However, no matter what approach we
take, we will have to measure the production and use of toxics. No
matter what we do, we will have to measure success or failure.
Furthermore, it is essential to measure toxics in relation to a plant's
overall production. If we don't measure toxics in relation to overall
production, we won't know whether a measured reduction in toxics is due
to efficiency (fewer toxics used per pound of useful product), or
whether the plant simply had a bad year and produced less useful
product. Measuring chemical production and use is the most fundamental
step for learning whether any toxics use reduction program is achieving
its goals. Such measurement could be required by local, state, or
Our new report, WHAT CHEMICALS EACH INDUSTRY USES (Princeton, Nj:
Environmental Research Foundation, Dec., 1988), is available for
$25.00; among its 288 pages is a section on how to find the SIC code
that covers your local industry; then, for each SIC code operating in
the state of New Jersey (which is most all of them), a list of toxic
chemicals they reported using, including the quantities reported. For
each chemical, we give the name, and we give the Chemical Abstract
Services (CAS) number so you can learn more about the characteristics
of each chemical through standard sources such as the REGISTRY OF TOXIC
EFFECTS OF CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES (rtecs). Rtecs is sold by the U.S.
Government Printing Office, Washington, Dc 20460; phone (202) 783-3238.
Ask for USGPO No. 017-033-00431-5. Rtecs is 7 paperback volumes: a
Descriptor terms: sic codes; waste reduction; toxics use reduction;
pollution prevention; waste avoidance; waste minimization; zero