The chlorine industry has attempted to attribute much of the dioxin in the environment to natural sources and to everyday familiar processes in an attempt to rid it of its image as a synthetic, man-made toxin. The idea is to present it as a natural part of modern life and to disassociate it from chlorine. The argument was first introduced by Dow in 1978 and is still used today. For example the British Plastics Federation argued: “the stark fact is that dioxins have been present in the atmosphere since man first created fire.”
Arnold and Gottlieb, founders of the Wise Use Movement, argued in Trashing the Economy that dioxin “is now widely recognized as a naturally occurring substance created whenever combustion of natural substances occurs. The Chlorine Chemistry Council says:
Among the natural sources of dioxin are forest fires, volcanoes, and compost piles. Man-made sources of dioxin include municipal, hospital and hazardous waste incinerators, motor vehicles, residential wood burning and a variety of chemical manufacturing process. With so many sources, it is not surprising that scientists have detected dioxins virtually everywhere they have looked.
In contrast environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, are keen to point out that dioxin is a byproduct of the chlorine industry and that dioxin is ubiquitous because chlorine products are ubiquitous. They say that motor vehicles emit dioxin because chlorinated chemicals are added to petrol, wood burning releases dioxin because of the use of chlorine-based wood preservatives and that incinerators are a major source of dioxin because of the chlorine-containing wastes burnt in them—PVC plastics in medical waste incinerators, chlorinated solvents and pesticides in hazardous waste incinerators, and PVC plastics, chlorine-bleached paper, chlorine-containing paints, pesticides and cleaners in municipal incinerators:
Dioxin in the environment at levels that potentially threaten human health is neither natural nor unavoidable; it is the necessary result of the production, distribution and disposal of the products of chlorine chemistry. Eliminating dioxin generation will require that humans stop making the chlorine-based chemicals that inevitably lead to dioxin formation.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank which has received funds from the Chemical Manufacturers Association, put out an essay subtitled “The End of Chlorine” which claimed that “there is a mounting campaign, led by environmental activists in wealthy industrialized nations, to eliminate every last man-made chlorine molecule from the face of the earth.” Such an idea is ridiculed by pointing out that “Mother Nature manufactures at least 1,500 chlorine-containing chemicals” including common table salt. The Alliance for the Responsible Use of Chlorine Chemistry says “Groups like Greenpeace want to rid the world of chlorine....hundreds of animals and organisms manufacture chlorine compounds....”
Greenpeace’s calls for a gradual phase out of the industrial use of chlorine, initially seen as radical, were backed up by more respected mainstream organisations as the effects of dioxin emerged during the 1990s. In 1992 the Science Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes (IJC) concluded that organochlorines were a public health threat and that the use of chlorine as an industrial feedstock should be phased out:
We conclude that persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in any quantity...We know that when chlorine is used as a feedstock in a manufacturing process, one cannot necessarily predict or control which chlorinated organics will result, and in what quantity. Accordingly, the Commission concludes that the use of chlorine and its compounds should be avoided in the manufacturing process.
The following year, in 1993, the Governing Council of the American Public Health Association, one of the leading scientific and medical associations in the US, unanimously endorsed a resolution urging US industries to stop using chlorine. It stated “the only feasible and prudent approach to eliminating the release and discharge of chlorinated organic chemicals and consequent exposure is to avoid the use of chlorine and its compounds in manufacturing processes”
The Competitive Enterprise Institute and other chlorine industry supporters say that banning chlorine would mean that millions of people in the third world would die from want of disinfected water:
Even more daunting, a chlorine phase-out would halt the production of most plastics, pesticides and chlorine-containing drugs.... From safe drinking water, clean swimming pools, pest-free crops, to flame retardants and food packaging, quality white paper and bright socks, Saran wrap, plastic bottles, garden hoses, window frames and sturdy plumbing pipes, the end of chlorine would spell the end of modern civilization itself.
This is also the line taken by a Chlorine Chemistry Council news release which used National Health Week to point out how “chlorine is an important contributor to public health protection and disease prevention....virtually eliminating waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid in the U.S.” and used in 85 percent of drugs. And on the internet the Council explained how chlorine “works for the environment.” Three examples were given: by enabling the production of materials for automobiles that make them lighter and therefore more fuel efficient; through “crop protection chemicals” (a euphemism for pesticides) that result in higher crop yields and therefore less pressure to convert rainforests for agriculture; and in purifying silicon for use in solar panel chips.
The Council claimed “almost 40 percent of US jobs and income are in some way dependent on chlorine” and the Alliance for the Responsible Use of Chlorine Chemistry argues that “chlorine-related industries provide some five million jobs worldwide and direct capital investment in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” The alliance therefore resolves to “undertake programs of education and advocacy regarding the responsible applications of chlorine chemistry.”
A writer in the Texas Observer noted:
The CCC and its allies are quick to characterise any attempt to point out the connection between dioxin, organochlorines and chlorine production as part of a sinister campaign to ‘ban chlorine’ immediately, so that they can conjure up the catastrophic effects and costs of an abrupt elimination of chlorine—as if it were to happen overnight, without transition or alternatives.
Indeed the Council argued that chlorine is “irreplacable in our economy” and “it’s hard to envision life without it.” However, as well known environmental scientist Barry Commoner pointed out to a Citizen’s Conference on Dioxin, chlorine-based products have permeated the modern world “not so much by creating new industries as by taking over existing forms of production... It grew through a virulent from of industrial imperialism.” He suggests that there are and have been alternatives to these chemicals.
The chair of the International Joint Commission which had recommended a phasing out of the industrial use of chlorine, Gordon Durnil, a conservative Republican Bush appointee, wrote in his book The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist that the Commissioners had discussed how long a phase out would take, thinking that it might take 50 years. They were amazed when “Industry came to us and told us how stupid we were” for suggesting a phase out of chlorine because “finding a suitable alternative might take thirty years. Later they reduced that to twenty years.”
The chlorine industry and its allies present the arguments of their opponents as coming from environmentalists, such as Greenpeace, rather than from scientists. In this way they characterise the argument that dioxin is dangerous as one based on fear and emotion whereas their own is based on science. For example, Gordon Gribble writing for the think tank, the Heartland Institute, says “Numerous reports in the media have ascribed possible detrimental health effects to chlorine, dioxin and other chlorinated chemicals... Greenpeace... has led the attack....Greenpeace’s claims face formidable opposition from the scientific community.” He and others in the industry continue to insist that “The only documented adverse health effect of exposure to dioxin is the skin disease chloracne.” The issue of other health effects is never presented as a being supported by scientific evidence nor even as a scientific controversy.
The Chlorophiles say they are concerned that ‘mankind’ will be excluded from the benefits of chlorine because of “prejudices and false or erroneous information.” Wise Users, Arnold and Gottlieb, go so far as to claim; “A $400 million government study has concluded that dioxin is everywhere and has been doing no detectable harm... However, environmental groups still try to peddle fear of dioxin as a fund raising gimmick and press for more government studies, hoping that one will someday come up with the politically correct result.”
The Managing Director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, C. T. Howlett, told a UN working party:
Rather than being guided by what we know—the scientific facts about chlorine and chlorinated compounds and the many benefits they have brought to society—the debate is revolving around what we don’t know and the fears that spring from a lack of understanding and rush to judgement.
He called for the debate to move from “Greenpeace’s slanderous characterization of ‘Absolute Death’ to the scientific reality of ‘Absolute Necessity’...” and that common sense would show that chlorine chemistry’s benefits more than outweighed its “hypothetical risks.” He even suggested that dioxin “may ironically help provide a cure for breast cancer” by providing, at certain exposure levels, “a form of chemoprotection.”
In 1995 Howlett addressed the American Chemical Society, stressing “the role that you, as scientists, can help play in setting the record straight.” He said that “the scientific data to support a chlorine ban or restrictions on its uses are sketchy or non-existent” and that the chlorine issue was being driven by “perception, sprinkled with a strong dose of politics”.
To the public, dioxin is the most toxic chemical known to mankind. This belief persists despite a preponderance of scientific evidence that dioxin does not cause adverse human health effects other than chloracne, a condition that results only from extremely high levels of dioxin exposure.
Rather than advancing public knowledge about dioxin—and perhaps, calming some fears, the EPA’s draft reassessment, failed to differentiate its regulatory policy on dioxin from matters of scientific fact.
Another line taken by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Alliance for the Responsible Use of Chlorine Chemistry is that synthetic oestrogens such as dioxin that act as endocrine disrupters, are dwarfed by the phytoestrogens produced by hundreds of plants that “appear to produce endocrine disrupters...The estrogenic effects from the phytoestrogens in our diets are an estimated 40 million times greater than those from synthetic chemicals... To date, however, there is no concrete evidence that either pose a risk to human health.”
A similar line has been used in Australia by the head of the Environmental Health and Safety Unit of the Commonwealth government who has said “While most of the focus has been on man-made chemicals, it is important to recognise that endogenous oestrogens, therapeutic use, and phytoestrogens... are produced or ingested in much larger amounts than environmental pollutants.” He said that there is “no definite proof for any connection between environmental exposure of humans to oestrogenic substances and increasing cancer incidences or decreasing male fertility” and that the emphasis should be on the need for further research.
The British Plastics Federation also refers to the “presence of naturally-occurring oestrogenic chemicals in foodstuffs such as soya, peas, beans etc.” And the Chlorophiles have argued that “plants give natural oestrogen mimics in our food.” They suggested that we ingest so many ‘natural carcinogens’ in our food that we should not be concerned about a minute amounts of carcinogens caused by chlorine products.