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Ethics and Community Responsibility: Dioxin and the Toxics Right-to-Know

Ethics and Community Responsibility: Dioxin and the Toxics Right-to-Know by Mary O'Brien

Dioxin brings a depth and breadth to one's sense of ethics and community responsibility. This is because it is an extraordinary chemical.

Here are the essential facts regarding dioxin. Dioxin is toxic at essentially undetectable amounts. Dioxin is toxic in multiple ways. Dioxin is toxic to nearly all living beings on Earth. Dioxin is toxic for years. Dioxin is being forced by humans into the tissues of nearly every living being on Earth. Dioxin is nearly always accompanied by other organochlorine toxic chemicals which impose their own adverse impacts onto these same living beings. Humans are choosing to produce dioxin and these organochlorine toxics through our use of chlorinated organic compounds. Dioxin arises out of organic chlorine production, use, and disposal as surely as heat arises out of a burning log. Finally, nearly all uses of chlorinated organic compounds are nonessential. Unnecessary.

This last point, the inessentiality of using chlorinated organic compounds, is the key to the ethics surrounding dioxin and other organochlorine toxics. We are hitting embryos, children, mink, fish, panthers, and almost everyone else, even though we don't have to hit them.

As regards dioxin, one's ethics and community responsibility distill down to this point: the unnecessary production and use of chlorinated organic chemicals.

It may seem more interesting, or compelling, or scientifically impressive to think about dioxin than to think about the chlorinated chemical industry. Nevertheless, we will continue to make people and all other living beings sick with dioxin as long as we continue to permit the existence of, and buy from, the chlorinated chemical industry.

So, what of the ethics and community responsibility of people in relation to organochlorine production, use, and disposal?

ETHICS Two thoughts on ethics:

1) It is unethical to decide, via risk assessment, how much inessential, unnecessary dioxin will be forced into the bodies of wildlife and people. This is unethical because it is a decision of how much unnecessary suffering, damage, and premature dying is OK to force on unconsenting living beings. I would contend this is the meaning of an EPA "standard" for dioxin in fish, or in the emissions of a solid waste incinerator (such as the one north of Salem in Brooks) or vinyl chloride facility, or the water discharge of a pulp and paper mill (for example, the one upstream of Salem in Halsey).

Alabama State Attorney General Jimmy Evans expressed the moral dimension of risk assessment thusly (Kipp 1991): "The risk assessment technologies ... say people will die as a result of dioxin emissions. Then they say that is perfectly acceptable. That is really, really-to me-outrageous and bizarre. It reflects an elitism, a plantation mentality. I think it amounts to a confession. It is very, very simple to me. It is a moral issue. They have said people will die, and we are supposed to accept that. As attorney general of this state, I can't."

Attorney General Evans is not speaking to a dream of a risk-free society. He is instead expressing something we all know, or should know: dioxin emissions are not necessary, and yet real people are being anonymously consigned to damage or death by these activities.

I can think of only one ethical question regarding dioxin: "What opportunities do we have to virtually eliminate the production of dioxin?" You, the reader, must decide how you approach risk assessment, because its use is largely unquestioned in our society. But I urge you to consider the "ethics" of accepting dioxin-caused suffering in the absence of considering alternatives to the use of chlorinated organic compounds. You might be accused of being "less than objective" when you stop the practice of determining how much dioxin damage is OK, but you'll be more helpful to the living beings on Earth.

There is a Zero Dioxin Alliance in the Bay area. There is a Zero Toxics Alliance in Seattle, Washington, and the B.C. area. The titles of these alliances signal their outright rejection of risk assessment regarding how much dioxin is OK. Both of these coalitions focus on changing the practices of industries and corporations that use chlorinated chemicals unnecessarily. For instance, they press for alternatives in the pulp and paper industry, the oil refinery industry, plastics industry, and cement kilns.

It's not sexy to talk or think about industrial practices, but it is ethical. Alternatives assessment (the assessment of alternatives to hazardous activities such as the production of chlorinated organic chemicals) must replace risk assessment, which is used to permit the continuing activities of these industries.

2) A second aspect of ethics relating to dioxin is that to be ethical, we must succeed in eliminating the production of dioxin. It isn't enough to come to understand why dioxin is bad news or to protest the production of dioxin. It isn't enough to nip at the foot of the dioxin-production elephant. What is ethical is to eliminate dioxin production, because that is the only action that will prevent unnecessary dioxin suffering and dying. Again, this means we must succeed at virtually eliminating the industrial production of chlorine.

This takes us to community responsibility, because the production, use, and disposal of organochlorine chemicals is taking place in our communities. We have a responsibility to change how our community behaves with regard to chlorinated chemicals. There are dozens of legitimate strategies and steps to do this. Let me make three concrete suggestions to you the reader.

DEFEND TOXICS RIGHT-TO-KNOW IN OREG0N. One crucial step is to know which, how much, and where chlorinated chemicals and other toxic chemicals are in our communities. In November, 1996, Eugene passed, by 55% to 45%, an initiative charter amendment on toxics right-to-know. Under this law, large manufacturers in Eugene must report their inputs and outputs of hazardous chemicals to the public. This is called "materials accounting," and it's like keeping a checkbook account of hazardous chemicals. Production and purchases (inputs) must equal the releases (outputs) of all hazardous chemicals a manufacturer uses, down to 2.2 pounds/year. Materials accounting helps the manufacturers and the public know when the fate of all input chemicals has been reported.

Eugene manufacturers will begin their first year of hazardous materials accounting on January 1, 1998, and will report their inputs and outputs for the first time on April 1, 1999.

Eugene's Toxics Board (three representatives of reporting industries, three advocates of public right-to-know) has now been appointed by the Eugene City Council, has selected a seventh member, and is working to develop simple-to-use forms for reporting inputs and outputs. Manufacturers have all of 1997 to first help design the forms for reporting, and then to adapt their record-keeping to accommodate the public's right-to-know. The bill does not require the manufacturers to measure each amount of each hazardous chemical: it does require manufacturers to provide the public with their best knowledge of where their hazardous chemicals go when used. They know; you should, too.

However, in February, 1997, Oregon Associated Industries and the American Electronics Association introduced a bill in the Oregon legislature to erase community right-to-know about toxic chemicals. The bill constitutes legislated ignorance. The sponsors want industries to be able to put hazardous chemicals into a community's air, water, ground, and products without telling the community. Specifically, HB 3281 would (a) destroy the Eugene toxics right-to-know law, which Eugeneans voted for last November, and (b)'prevent all other Oregon communities from obtaining toxics right-to-know.

The bill's summary says that the bill "prohibits local government from adopting local regulation intended to provide for distribution of hazardous substance information to public." The bill claims that, "Information on the use of hazardous substances in this state should be made readily available to members of the public, allowing them to take measures to protect themselves against dangers posed to health and safety." However, the bill then denies citizen access to this information. It deceitfully pretends that this information is available from the State Fire Marshall. The State Fire Marshall collects information on hazardous chemicals stored on a facility's site. The State Fire Marshall does not collect information regarding the release of hazardous chemicals into a community's air, water, sewage treatment, or consumer products.

Your help is needed to defeat this bill, because Associated Oregon Industries has big influence in the current Oregon legislature. We need every Senator and Representative possible, Republican and Democrat, to commit to opposing this bill, and to make sure Governor Kitzhaber vetoes the bill if it passes.

EXPLAIN HOW DIOXIN WORKS An important task for you, the reader, is to learn, simply and clearly, how dioxin and chlorinated chemicals harm people, and then to explain it to City Council members, to legislators, to everyone. Explain how these toxic chemicals scramble chemical messages in the body. Explain the consequences of these toxic chemicals suppressing the immune system. Explain how they interfere with the organization of the brain in a developing embryo.

A particularly compelling need is for us all to come to understand that we are essentially not different from wildlife. Focus group surveys conducted prior to the release of the book Our Stolen Future, regarding endocrine -disrupting chemicals such as dioxin, found that people understand that wildlife are being damaged by hormone -disrupting toxic chemicals. They believe that sex changes are occurring in fish, undescended testicles in Florida panthers, small penises in Columbia River otters.

But most people think we humans are different. That we're somehow stronger, or bigger, or smarter, or something, and therefore not subject to the rules of the rest of the animal kingdom.

All living beings are in this together. Mouse estradiol is genetically identical to that of Hillary Clinton, or our daughters. A human is, in terms of dioxin, the same as a panther, a fish, and an otter. What happens to them happens to us.

BE AN ORDINARY CITIZEN A third major contribution we all can make is to be an ordinary citizen who gathers signatures on a petition, sits on local committees, or asks people to give money to advocacy organizations. In other words, don't leave political action to others. In a democracy, citizens are responsible for governing themselves.

It is not an easy task for people to become involved with political action, and to recruit others. For instance, it is not easy to recruit health professionals into political action that involves changing the practices of organochlorine using industries and corporations, such as hospitals that use PVC plastic bags and tubing. But it is essential.

To not act is to collaborate in unnecessary killing and damage and loss.

It is not enough to merely stand on the banks of a river and rescue drowning bodies as they float past. It is necessary to walk upstream and find out who is throwing the bodies in. And it is necessary to change that behavior, whether it is by a person, a corporation, or a government policy. That is ethics and community responsibility.

Mary O'brien, Ph.D, is a consultant on alternatives to risk assessment. She has been a staff scientist with the U.S. Office of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, and the Environmental Research Foundation. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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