Environment: Chemical Warfare

The campaign against chlorine is a campaign against modern industrial society.


Newsflash! Attorney General Janet Reno has just announced that, having determined some members of environmental groups are murderers, rapists, thieves, and child pornographers, all environmentalists must be exiled to Antarctica where they can ponder the thinning ozone layer without harming innocent Americans.

Sound bizarre? Sure, but hardly more so than the efforts of many environmentalists to ban all organic chemicals made with chlorine. And what's truly upsetting is that to some extent, at least, they've gotten the Environmental Protection Agency to go along with this idea. As part of the EPA's recommendations for reauthorizing the Clean Water Act, Administrator Carol Browner has announced that she will ask Congress to authorize her agency to develop a strategy to "prohibit, reduce or substitute [for] the use of chlorine" over the next three years.

This does not necessarily mean that Greenpeace and other environmental groups calling for a total ban are going to get their wish, but it will constitute the first time an entire large class of chemicals would be considered for such a ban.

In addition to the uses with which most of us are familiar–chlorinating water to kill germs and chlorine bleach to clean clothes–chlorine is used in the making of a vast number of products such as pipes, bottles, house siding, and packaging. A large percentage of pharmaceuticals are made using chlorine chemistry, and many contain chlorine. Many pesticides contain chlorine, and almost all are manufactured with chlorine chemistry. According to some estimates, chlorine is involved in almost 60 percent of all commercial chemical uses.

The cost of a ban on chlorinated chemicals would be excruciating, as much as $90 billion a year to employ available substitutes, according to one industry-sponsored study. No matter, say the chlorine critics. It is an evil that must be purged, even if the scientific evidence is unconvincing.

Demonstrating their "ban now, ask questions later" policy, a 1993 Greenpeace report attempting to link chlorine and breast cancer declares, "If proof is defined as evidence, beyond any doubt, of a cause-effect link between individual chemicals and the disease, in which all confounding influences have been eliminated, the answer is no," there is no proof of causation. But "it is unethical, irresponsible and unrealistic to require strict proof, because such an approach takes preventative action only after irreversible damage to health and the environment have taken place."

What is this irreversible damage of which they speak? Everything from thinning the ozone layer to thinning eggshells, from causing cancer to bending the gender of fish has been attributed by someone to one organochlorine or another. Do you see any connection between these?

Even non-politicized researchers say that some of the charges against chlorinated chemicals may have some merit, but this has nothing to do with some special property of chlorine. Rather, the class of organochlorines contains a number of possible harmful agents for the same reason that the class of environmentalists contains murderers, rapists, thieves, and pedophiles. Both groups are so large that each must necessarily contain a whole spectrum from very good to very bad.

Yet one prominent spokesman has called for a ban on this wide spectrum of chemicals based on fears associated with just one. "We decided you can't distinguish among different compounds of chlorine as to which is harmful and which is not," says Gordon Durnil, an attorney and U.S. co-chair of the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. "We decided we needed to look at chlorine as a class and decided because of the effects of dioxin, that use of chlorine as [an industrial] feedstock should be sunset."

There is nothing magical about attaching a chlorine atom to a carbon atom, which is all it takes to make a chlorinated chemical. Some chlorine-based compounds like DDT persist in body fat year after year; some do not. Some cause cancer in laboratory animals fed massive doses; others do not. Not only is there no special propensity for cancer causation among chlorines, the addition of chlorine can actually detoxify certain compounds.

It may seem at a glance that many of the chemicals that have gotten the most attention as hazards contain chlorine, but that is because they have been so carefully scrutinized. If the police looked for child pornography in the homes of environmentalists five times as often as they raided other people's homes, it would hardly be shocking to find environmentalists overrepresented among arrested pedophiles.

For three decades now, environmentalists have pursued chlorines with the fevered obsessiveness of Jim Garrison tracking down JFK conspirators. Yet they have remarkably little to show for it. When they do seem to have found something, such as last-year's highly publicized study linking DDT to breast cancer, the report receives tremendous press and critics of the study's methodology are practically ignored. Dioxin was long touted as "the most deadly chemical created by man," but decades of scrutiny have shown that its only acute human effect is a form of acne. If it is a human carcinogen at all, it is probably only in the sort of massive doses that some chemical workers have received.

Even scientists who have staked their reputations on alleging harm from particular types of chlorine have rejected the vilification of that whole square on the periodic table. Mario Molina, instrumental in the eventual ban of chlorofluorocarbons because of their alleged ozone-eating property, told Science magazine that a chlorine-wide ban "isn't taken seriously from a scientific point of view."

Yet some have gone so far as to compare chlorine to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. "You can think of chlorinated biological compounds as aliens," said environmentalist Barry Commoner, "and like aliens from outer space, the reason they cause problems is that they're readily assimilated into the normal chemistry of life. It's just like the movies." Get it? They're bad because they're so abnormal, yet they're so normal.

Not only are Commoner's pod people of the chemical world not alien, they occur commonly in nature. By 1992, 1,500 naturally occurring chlorinated chemicals had been identified, and the list continues to grow. As with synthetic chlorides, some of these will be found to be harmful at levels to which humans are exposed and some will not.

Consider the one with which we are most familiar, sodium chloride. E, "The Environmental Magazine," informed its readers during an anti-chlorine tirade that salt is "harmless and essential." Essential it certainly is, yet as Samuel Taylor Coleridge so aptly observed ("Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink"), it can be toxic in naturally occurring levels. Indeed, the salting of food for preservation purposes is generally considered a major cause of stomach cancer. U.S. cases of stomach cancer have dropped dramatically as salt preservation has decreased.

Natural chemicals, however, don't count. The environmentalist dictum is: "Natural good, synthetic bad." This dichotomy is based on nothing more than a blind faith that mother nature would not hurt her children. Tell that to the folks in L.A. right now. Tell it to those poisoned by mushrooms, berries, or puffer fish or given cancer from that most ubiquitous of agents, sunlight. At any rate, while most religious beliefs are not falsifiable, this one is. The limited laboratory studies performed on non-synthetic (natural) chemicals show that they are carcinogenic in lab animals at about the same rate as the synthetic ones. Your immune system is no better equipped to handle a carcinogen from Mother Nature than one from Monsanto or Dow.

The real focus of the anti-chlorine campaign isn't chlorine so much as man-made chemicals in general. Says Chlorine Institute spokesman Joseph Walker, "You wouldn't have modern society as we have it. Chlorine-based products are essential to modern life." That may be just the idea. (As Rainforest Action Network Director Randall Hayes once said in defense of activism over deep ecology, "It's a spiritual act to try to shut down DuPont.") Banning all synthetic chemicals, beginning with the huge number that contain or are synthesized with chlorine, would usher in a non-industrial utopia.

The environmentalists will not succeed in getting all synthetics banned, any more than skinheads will be able to establish a Fourth Reich in Germany. The only issue is how much damage they will wreak in their efforts. Recent contamination of drinking water in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., is touted as evidence for further regulation under the Clean Water Act, but if that same act eliminates chlorination from water supplies it will almost certainly result in massive sickness and death from cholera and other diseases. There is no other substance of which we are aware that persistently kills organisms in water.

The proper way of discriminating among chemicals isn't between chlorines and non-chlorines, or between naturals and synthetics. Rather, our goal should be to use quality science on a case-by-case basis to restrict and seek alternatives to the usage of any chemical, chlorinated or not, synthetic or not, which causes harm to humans or the environment. This won't accomplish any political, moral, religious, or social goals. But it will make the world a safer and cleaner place. That should be worth something, shouldn't it?

Michael Fumento, author of Science Under Siege (William Morrow Co.) and the newly re-released The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS (Regnery-Gateway), is the 1994 Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.