Chemical Risk Overview

Chemical Risk Overview

July 17, 2008

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Worldwide, the average human life span has increased from about 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century to more than 60 years today, and it continues to rise. In the United States, it has reached 76 years according to a recent estimate. The freedom to develop and put to use thousands of man-made chemicals has played a crucial role in that progress by making possible such things as pharmaceuticals, safe drinking water, and pest control. 

Yet the public perception is that man-made chemicals are the source of every possible ill, from cancer to ozone depletion and from infertility to brain damage. Ignoring that nature produces far more chemicals at far higher doses and that most chemicals are innocuous at low doses, activists capitalize on those fears. They scare the public by hyping the risks to ensure that the government passes volumes of laws and regulations focused on eliminating chemicals without much regard for the tradeoffs. 

Advocates of such limits want the government to make sure every chemical is safe before exposing the public. In his 2000 book Pandora’s Poison, Greenpeace’s Joe Thornton calls on society to follow the “precautionary principle,” which says “we should avoid practices that have the potential to cause severe damage, even in the absence of scientific proof of harm.” We should shift the burden of proof, he continues. Those individuals or firms introducing new chemicals must prove the chemicals are safe before introducing them into commerce, and those chemicals already in commerce that fail to meet this standard “should be phased out in favor of safer alternatives.” 

The problem is that no one can ever prove that anything is 100 percent safe. Not surprisingly, Thornton also advocates a “zero discharge” policy, which calls for the elimination of all bioaccumulative chemicals6. In particular, he has long called for the elimination of chlorine. Science magazine quotes him as noting: “There are no known uses for chlorine which we regard as safe.” Perhaps in recognition that this standard is politically untenable, he suggested that chlorine use be continued for “some pharmaceuticals” and some “water disinfection,” but only until other options become available.