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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chlorine Causes Controversy

Air Date: Week of

As part of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is proposing to study the effects of chlorine on both people and animals. A growing number of scientists believe that the multipurpose chemical has alarming health effects. Industries are contesting the recommended studies, saying the chemical is invaluable and substitute chemicals too expensive. Bruce Gellerman reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

A major battle is shaping up in Congress over what at first might seem to be a minor issue. Among the Clinton Administration's proposed amendments to the Clean Water Act is a request for $3 million to study the health effects of chlorine used by industry. It's a small budget line, but it has spawned big fears on the part of chemical companies. Chemicals made with chlorine are a major part of industry, from the production of life-saving pharmaceuticals to the manufacture of plastics, paper, and computers. but an increasing body of evidence shows that synthetic chlorinated chemicals are dangerous to the health of humans and wildlife in almost every form tested so far. Last year, after an extensive review by its scientists, the US/Canada International Joint Commission, which oversees the Great Lakes, called for a virtual ban on the use of chlorine. The chemical industry is reacting bitterly to the proposed EPA study. They think the Agency may have already prejudged chlorine, and that Congress could be stampeded into ill-considered and economically destructive action. Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR has our report.

GELLERMAN: If there's a manufactured chemical that's produced better living through chemistry, chlorine might be a good candidate. It's familiar to most of us as a disinfectant for drinking water and as a bleach. But that's only the beginning. Chlorine, or one of the 11,000 chlorinated compounds, is used in making everything from cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and disposable diapers, to durable plastics, pesticides, and rocket fuel. But now the EPA is thinking what at least some people believe is the unthinkable. The Agency is raising the possibility of banning chlorine from industry. In the words of the Administration's amendment to the Clean Water Act, the EPA would develop, quote, "a national strategy to substitute, reduce, or prohibit the use of chlorine in chlorinated compounds." Charles Fox is director of policy development in the EPA's Office of Water.

FOX: While there are a number of beneficial uses of chlorine, there are some compounds and byproducts of chlorine's use that can bioaccumulate in the food chain, impose significant threats to the aquatic ecosystems, and ultimately to the people that rely upon the food that they provide. And it is fair to say that this proposal was somewhat controversial.

GELLERMAN: That's an understatement. Outraged is the way a press release described the chemical industry's reaction to the chlorine study amendment. It goes on to say, "The Agency has left us no choice but to fight. And we will. Vigorously."

MASON: Our first reaction was that the EPA was prejudging chlorine.

GELLERMAN: Ann Mason, Director of Regulatory Affairs with the Chemical Manufacturers Association, believes the EPA has already decided to ban chlorine.

MASON: Any study that's undertaken with the perspective of looking at, prohibiting, reducing, or eliminating the use of these very beneficial chemicals, we will not support.

GELLERMAN: The CMA says banning chlorine from industry would have dire economic consequences. It estimates the element plays a role in 45 million US jobs and 40% of the Gross National Product. The industry's opposition has not caused the EPA to back away from the proposed study. But eager not to lose support for the overall Clean Water Bill, EPA administration Carol Browner met with the head of the Chemical Association and told him the chlorine amendment had been misinterpreted. Charles Fox of the EPA says the study will include members of the chemical industry, as well as independent scientists and environmentalists.

FOX: It is ludicrous to suggest that we are banning any one element from the periodic table. Obviously that is something that is impossible to do. Our goal in this is to look at some of the complex ways that these substances are used throughout our environment, and to try and do our best to control those uses that we believe will be most beneficial to protecting public health and the environment.

GELLERMAN: In some forms, chlorine is unquestionably safe. It's found in every drop of sea water. But it's the pure form, rare in nature but common in industry, the EPA wants to study. It's in this form that chlorine is toxic, and some of its compounds and byproducts, so-called organochlorines, have been linked to cancer. They include DDT, dioxin, and PCBs. But the newest evidence suggests toxicity and cancer may be only part of the problem. Theo Colburn is a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund.

COLBURN: I'm afraid that in many instances we've overlooked these very, very less obvious, but certainly equally as devastating, health effects, that are not being expressed in the individuals who are directly exposed, but in their offspring.

GELLERMAN: Colburn is the leading proponent of a hypothesis that chlorinated compounds can disrupt the endocrine system during fetal development. The theory, and a growing number of studies, suggests chlorine chemicals and byproducts can mimic hormones: chemical messengers in the body that regulate growth, reproduction, and the ability to fight diseases. Recently, the International Joint Commission, a US-Canadian agency, which oversees the Great Lakes, cited evidence of hormone disruption in calling for the complete phase-out of chlorine and chlorinated compounds. Mike Gilbertson is with the IJC.

GILBERTSON: One of the things we first noticed in the Great Lakes was that the herring gull embryos, the male embryos, were in fact developing parts of the female anatomy. So they look like hermaphrodites. And in fact it just doesn't affect feminization; it affects a whole series of other processes like the neurological development.

COBURN: Some of the messages we're getting within the last year or two tell us that yes, these things seem to be happening in people, too.

GELLERMAN: Theo Colburn cites studies linking chlorinated compounds to reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, and arrested sexual development in humans. The EPA wants to study these hormonal effects along with chlorine's other health impacts. But Ann Mason of the Chemical Manufacturers Association doubts the objectivity of the EPA's investigation, and says the industry is doing its own studies.

MASON: We are aware of these allegations of the linkage between organochlorines and other non-cancer end-points. This is a new area of science, and we really are looking for the ways of getting answers. After all, the studies that we have seen and have discussed, really pose conflicting findings.

GELLERMAN: So far, the chemical makers have successfully blocked the Clinton Administration's chlorine studies. But another bill, already before Congress, could accomplish almost the same goal. It calls for a phase-out of the use of chlorine in the paper industry and would fund studies of the health effects of other industrial uses of chlorine. Some European nations are already eliminating chlorine as a bleach in their paper and pulp companies. Even if the Clean Water Amendment fails, it seems the debate over chlorine in the US is just beginning. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.



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