Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#154 - How To Achieve Pollution Control? Zero Discharge vs. 'Prove Harm', 06-Nov-1989

What are the goals of the grass roots movement for environmental
justice? Surely one goal is pollution control. How can we get there?

There are two fundamental philosophies of pollution control: total
containment vs. partial abatement. We have written before about total
containment (see RHWN #106); it is the principle of no dumping, or zero
discharge, which says, "All peaceable people (that excludes criminals)
are entitled to hold themselves and their property free from coercion,
intrusion, and fraud, provided they secure the identical right for each
other. This definition of human rights clearly prohibits people who own
property from letting it intrude on anyone else's body or property,
which includes the common air and water... It is not the obligation of
other humans to prove that the dumping would be lethal or even a hazard
at all. There is just no right to let your property intrude on others,
and you'd better consider that before you make it or buy it." Zero
discharge is allowed; anything more than zero will draw a penalty.

The alternative, which we call "prove harm abatement," is what the U.S.
has been trying for the past 30 years. This philosophy allows polluters
to dump into common air and water until someone can prove harm; after
harm is proven, then "appropriate" controls may be required to restrict
emissions to "acceptable" levels. Why doesn't this system work?

1) This system rests upon the assumption that we humans know what we
are doing. It assumes that we can decide on a rational basis how much
of each chemical the earth can endure. Then we are supposed to devise
controls that will allow just the right amount of chemicals into the
environment, and no more.

There is something ominous about these assumptions. They lack humility.
Who really believes we humans know what we are doing? Who believes we
understand the environment well enough to determine how much of each
chemical is "safe" and how much is "unsafe." Who knew just 20 years ago
that emitting CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] into the atmosphere would
destroy the planet's ozone shield and allow dangerous levels of
ultraviolet light to flood the surface of the earth? Who knew that
nitrogen and sulphur released from power plants in the midwest would
devastate crops, forests and lakes throughout the eastern U.S., Canada
and Europe by acid rain?

Even if we knew how much of a chemical we could safely release into the
environment, who believes we can devise controls that will achieve the
desired goal? When you eat swordfish, you are risking brain damage from
mercury contamination. Mercury enters the oceans (and then the
swordfish) from many sources-from coal combustion, from the manufacture
of paper, from solid waste incinerators, and from mercury mining, to
mention only a few sources. What level of restrictions on which
industrial processes will reduce mercury emissions sufficiently to make
it once again safe to eat swordfish? It is an incredibly complex

There are too many ways that pollutants get into the environment for
society to be able to develop numerical controls on each substance
produced by each human activity. There are too many to measure, too
many to comprehend, too many to fix, if each is to be separately
examined and subjected to a uniquely appropriate control.

2) There are thousands of ways pollutants can directly harm humans;
because experiments on animals are expensive to carry out, we usually
only test chemicals for gross signs of harm, such as cancer, but there
are many more subtle kinds of harm we should be concerned about:
reproductive disorders (stillbirths, birth defects, low birth weight),
developmental disorders (reduced learning ability, for example), and
sublethal effects like headaches, sinus problems, rashes, blurred
vision, unsteadiness, kidney problems, and so forth. Medical science
knows little or nothing about these sublethal effects of most
chemicals. With 60,000 chemicals now in use and 500 to 1000 new ones
coming into use each year, there are simply too many chemicals to be
tested for subtle damage, so we only test for the most obvious effects
(if we test at all).

The "prove harm" philosophy reduces the most obvious damage from the
obvious poisons but it fails to take action against unknown ones until
some new unforseen consequence becomes obvious. The "prove harm"
philosophy is concerned with what are only the most visible fringes of
the problem.

3) Even when compelling scientific evidence of harm comes to light,
there is still a decades-long struggle to curb pollution. Lead is an
example. People have known for 2000 years that lead is a dangerous
poison, yet we allowed the automobile industry to emit millions of tons
of lead each year into our air. It took four decades to bring it under
control. Lead in paint reveals the same problem: doctors knew for two
decades that children in urban ghettoes were eating lead paint and
damaging their central nervous systems before Congress acted to
restrict lead in paint. Even after Congress acted, the problem
continued, and continues to this day.

4) Even when you can prove harm, this is not sufficient to guarantee
that a chemical will be controlled. It is now fashionable for industry
and government to open up a new debate on how much harm is acceptable.
Is it acceptable to kill one in 10,000 people exposed to benzene or may
we only kill one in a million? As odd as it may sound in our
Constitutional democracy, this is a real debate today. Under William
Reilly, the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has selected
one- in-10,000 whereas his predecessor had selected one-in-a-million.

5) Harm that is known to be occurring, but is not visible in reports of
vital statistics, is labeled insignificant or inconsequential. For
example, the Department of Energy estimated that the Chernobyl nuclear
power plant explosion would kill 28,000 people by giving them cancer
but they dismissed this as "negligible" compared to the natural cancer

After the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published its
estimate that the pesticide Alar on apples was causing 5,000 cancer
deaths each year in the U.S., the winner of the American Chemical
Society's coveted Priestley medal, George Pimintel, ridiculed NRDC's
"hysteria," saying 5000 cancers is "a barely noticeable perturbation"
of the nation's cancer statistics. (C&EN May 1, 1989, pg. 53.)

6) After harm is proven, and the need for restriction is accepted by
government agencies, additional progress toward stricter control can be
delayed by any well-funded industry that carries out additional
research; each new study becomes an opportunity to open up a debate on
whether to relax existing pollution controls.

7) The "prove harm" rule guarantees that we will have many victims of
pollution. Until we have victims-or evidence of serious environmental
disruption, like loss of the ozone shield, loss of oyster beds from
sewage, loss of the striped bass population from PCBs-we do not have a
compelling case for restricting emissions.

8) Under the "prove harm" philosophy, the development of controls is
dependent upon risk assessments and mathematical models. Since risk
assessments and mathematical models are matters of art more than they
are matters of science, reliance upon these tools for setting controls
is guaranteed to lead to endless debate among high-paid consultants,
but little satisfactory control of chemicals. Furthermore, ordinary
people are left out of the debate, which undermines democracy itself.

9) Prove harm strategies and item-by-item pollution control are subject
to dispute arising out of differences in emphasis, in understanding, or
even in aesthetics. When we decide it's OK to dump "some" chemicals
into the environment, "some" is difficult to describe, arbitrary to
establish, and always subject to question. "None" is not. That is why
we should now move to a "zero discharge" philosophy of pollution

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: zero discharge; risk assessment; health effects; lead
paint; gasoline; chernobyl; nrdc; alar; george pimintel; global
environmental problems;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (19)