Utopian Policymaking: The Inherent Dangers of “Inherently Safer Technology”

What would you say if the federal government proposed phasing out large commercial airplanes? After all, they could argue that using only small planes with small fuel tanks would be “inherently safer,” since they would be less desirable as terrorist tools. You would probably scoff—after all, such a policy would likely lead to more accidents by putting more cars on the road. Yet this is the very line of reasoning behind a new proposal to protect the nation’s businesses and infrastructure from terrorist attacks.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and environmental activists want to mandate what they call “inherently safer technology”—which, they’ve decided, entails phasing out or drastically reducing chemical use. Yet mandating “inherently safer technology” promises ultimately to produce a more dangerous world.

Everyone engages in inherently risky behavior every day. We drive cars, take medicine, get immunizations, and risk slipping in the shower. We choose these risks because they enhance our lives, health, and overall safety. Using chemicals also carries risks, but the benefits have proven profound for human well-being.

Fortunately, President Bush and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, recognize the obvious danger in phasing out the chemicals necessary to clean our water, grow our food, and produce vital medications. Both are working to steer the debate on chemical-plant security in a more productive direction. Sen. Inhofe is preparing to introduce a bill that would keep any chemical-related security regulation at the Department of Homeland Security, where security—not environmental zealotry—will be the focus. This approach will enhance security measures by finding ways to better manage risks, rather than simply abandoning vital technologies.

The Bush-Inhofe approach is clearly the safer one. Consider: One of the main targets of the chemical phase-out crowd is chlorine. Greenpeace, a driving force behind the Corzine approach, once advocated the complete ban of chlorine and is now making the case that Corzine’s bill would work toward chlorine-reduction goals.

Never mind the fact that chlorine is one of the greatest public-health achievements in history. It saves millions of lives every day when it is used in water treatment. It is used to make 85 percent of our pharmaceuticals, and to disinfect medical equipment, keep our hospitals sanitary, and kill the bacteria on our produce.

Residents in Peru learned about the risks of not using adequate chlorination in their water in 1991. Scientific journals have cited inadequate chlorination as a key contributor to an epidemic in South America that produced a million cases of cholera and thousands of deaths.

Greenpeace now claims it doesn’t want to ban chlorine completely—at least not yet. Instead, they are urging water treatment facilities to switch from chlorine gas—the most affordable form of chlorination—to other disinfectants, unilaterally deemed by Greenpeace to be “inherently safer.” Advocates note that the Blue Plains water treatment facility in Washington, D.C., switched from chlorine gas to an alternative product. Accordingly, they have declared this change to be a “solution” for everyone and want the Corzine bill to mandate it.

Yet the alternative is still a chlorine product—only in liquid form. Will Greenpeace and its allies always consider this alternative “inherently safe”—or will plants eventually have to phase it out as well?

In any case, switching to liquid chlorine does not always end the use of chlorine gas. Facilities tend to keep some onsite to address unexpected microbiological outbreaks, because it is a particularly effective disinfectant. When these facilities begin using other products, they will still need a management strategy for the limited chlorine gas they do use.

While environmentalists refuse to admit it, cost is also a consideration that will affect safety. With alternative disinfection costing several times more than chlorine gas, some smaller communities will have to trade off other needs to pay for it. Would it make more sense to force a small rural community—an unlikely terrorist target—to put off buying a fire truck in order to pay for more expensive treatment technology? After all, the absence of a fire truck almost certainly poses greater risks—since, for most communities, fires are much more likely than terrorist attacks.

Each community must be left free to assess its own needs. Blanket policies banning or phasing out chemicals will inevitably prove to be dangerous. We could force people to serve Greenpeace’s radical agenda, but that would be a certain danger.