Worldwatch Paper #153: Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals

November 2000
Anne Platt McGinn
ISBN: 1-878071-55-6
92 pages

There are today between 50,000 and 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial production, and new synthetics are entering the market at an average rate of three per day. Most synthetics probably pose little risk for the environment or human health, but some are poisonous even in minute quantities. Recent research on certain highly toxic synthetics has linked them to serious human health effects in the parts per trillion range. Ecological research is uncovering extensive wildlife damage as well.

Many of these compounds are “Persistent Organic Pollutants” (POPs), synthetic poisons that are extremely stable and that tend to accumulate in living things. Hundreds of POPs and “POP-like” chemicals are being produced, both intentionally (for example, certain pesticides) and unintentionally, as byproducts of various industrial processes (dioxins). POPs are the subject of increasing regulatory attention, on both national and international levels. The most systematic attempt to regulate them internationally is a treaty currently being negotiated under the auspices of the U.N. Environment Programme.

But regulations alone will not rid the chemical industry of its tendency to produce POPs. This paper argues for a complementary approach based on the precautionary principle—the idea that unnecessary environmental risk should be avoided. In each of the three industries examined here—the manufacture of paper, pesticides, and PVC plastic—there is strong evidence that economy can be “detoxified” without crippling production.

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