Chemical Reaction

The EPA wants to reduce materials, not danger.


Telephones, vitamin C, mammography film, wire insulation, kitchen sinks, aspirin, bridges, and white paper are among the essentials of modern life that share a common foundation: They either contain chemicals listed as toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency or require such chemicals in the manufacturing process. The EPA wants to reduce the use of those chemicals in the United States, and it thinks it has found a strategy that will work. It hopes that if it requires manufacturers to report publicly the amounts of these chemicals they use, companies will reduce chemical consumption to avoid negative publicity.

The EPA's focus on chemical-use reduction marks a fundamental shift in environmental policy. Under its proposed "materials accounting" policy, the agency is changing its emphasis from controlling the release of pollutants to reducing the consumption of certain materials as an end in itself–an end tied neither to reducing environmental risks nor to maintaining viable ecosystems.

No new law has authorized this shift. Rather, its origins lie in a 1986 bill, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, that required certain companies to disclose information about the release into the air, water, or soil (and transfers off-site) of 336 chemicals, later increased to 650 chemicals. This so-called Toxics Release Inventory resulted in periodic reporting by companies of the listed chemicals on a volume basis.

Environmentalists have heralded TRI reporting as a triumph of "market" environmentalism, of directing economic incentives to green ends. The law required no specific reductions in chemical releases. But companies, loathe to report releases of high tonnages of the offending substances, quickly began reducing releases of TRI chemicals. A market response, say TRI's proponents.

"What gets measured gets attention," an EPA official quipped. Between 1988 and 1993, release of TRI-listed chemicals dropped some 43 percent.

These reductions in chemical releases did not necessarily correspond to reductions in risk; if risk reductions did result, it was by happenstance, not because the TRI reporting requirements were rigorously risk-based. Nonetheless, buoyed by these reductions, TRI champions pressed for broader reporting requirements. The 1990 Pollution Prevention Act redefined "releases" as TRI chemicals "entering anywaste stream." The EPA decided that this language included wastes that were recycled, even on site. Also included were wastes treated or incinerated for energy recovery.

The EPA's definition made the connection between TRI information and environmental risk even more tenuous. By 1993, actual releases into air, soil, or water accounted for less than 9 percent of total reported chemicals. The rest of the TRI-reported "waste" was recycled, recovered for energy, or treated to become nontoxic.

Of the 240 million tons of TRI-listed chemicals produced in 1993, some 1.4 million tons were actually released into the environment. Yet the EPA's system required companies to report nearly 17 million tons of chemical "waste." The EPA's revised definition actually meant total TRI-reported waste increased between 1991 and 1993, leaving the public with the highly misleading impression that ever-escalating mountains of toxic chemicals were poisoning the environment.

For example, hexane, a petroleum-derived chemical, makes up around 31 percent of the total volume of waste listed in 1995 TRI reports. But over 98 percent of the reported waste is actually recycled on site back into production processes. The 1995 TRI-reported hexane "waste" was 33 times greater than actual hexane production, since hexane is often used and reused in a continuous cycle. According to the EPA's perverse logic, this triumph of chemical recycling is reported to the public under TRI regulations as industry "waste."

"Materials accounting" information lends itself to such semantic games. Through a subtle redefinition of "pollution prevention," the EPA stated that the goal of TRI should be to reduce the production and use of toxic chemicals, rather than to reduce waste and releases of toxins into the environment.

In an October 1995 report to President Clinton, the EPA proposed measuring the amount of chemicals used in production processes and the amount shipped out as product or embedded within products. Included were chemicals in finished products, even if the production process transformed the chemical into a nontoxic form. For example, producers of polyethylene, a nontoxic plastic, would have to report the amount of ethylene–a TRI-listed chemical–used to make plastic resin.

Clinton, endorsing the new reporting concept, announced that "materials accounting is no longer an option…it will be added to TRI." Apparently ignorant of the EPA's terminology gamesmanship, Clinton cautioned, "where there is room for concern…is that more waste was generated by industry in 1994 than in previous years."

Reducing the environmental footprint, or total impact on ecosystems, of industry is a laudable goal. Achieving greater efficiency in resource use is a part of that process and may often include the substitution of less toxic materials for toxic ones. Market price signals already drive firms to find ways to economize on the use of raw materials, including chemicals.

But the EPA's expanded TRI reporting assumes that reductions in the use of all TRI-listed chemicals are always possible and desirable, independent of any other considerations. The new materials-accounting concept also presumes that data collecting and reporting will automatically improve upon Adam Smith's invisible "green hand" that already pushes companies to conserve resources.

Clinton, in embracing the EPA's view, naively announced that materials accounting would motivate pollution prevention. After all, the TRI listing applied just to 650 "specific dangerous toxins," of the many thousands of available chemicals. The assumption behind his remark was that plenty of nontoxic alternatives must exist as substitutes, or that products made from these chemicals could be altogether eliminated.

Not so, says the Chemical Manufacturers Association. The EPA's TRI list includes six of the eight basic chemicals derived from petroleum. Companies would have to report the amount of chemicals used in thousands of products made from petrochemicals, many of which have no known substitutes.

The TRI list of 650 chemicals also includes 20 percent of the earth's basic elements. Aluminum, antimony, bromine, chlorine, cobalt, chromium, copper, fluorine, lead, zinc, phosphorous, manganese–these and other basic elements are listed as toxic chemicals. There are no substitutes for basic elements.

One half of the top 100 chemicals produced and used in the United States are on the EPA's list of toxic chemicals. Many of the remaining chemicals, while not on the list itself, require inputs of EPA-listed chemicals in their formulation.

All these chemicals provide building blocks for over 70,000 different end products, many of which are nontoxic despite requiring some toxic chemicals in their manufacture. These products include many household comforts, basic infrastructure, and health care essentials.

Aluminum, for instance, is used in aircraft wings. Chlorine is used in computer chips, asbestos replacements, vitamin B-6, X-ray films, acetaminophen, saline solutions, packaging, and the treatment of drinking water. Benzene is used to make backpacks, tents, photocopier toner, bleached paper, niacin, and computer disks. Name a modern product and behind it will often lie a TRI-listed chemical.

If reductions in the use of these chemicals could improve human health and reduce environmental risk, the EPA's policy might make sense. But the link between use of these chemicals and environmental risk is virtually nonexistent.

As toxicologist George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis told Congress, "Chemical use does not equal chemical risk….Simply knowing how many pounds are used provides no information regarding health and environmental risks." That's no information. None at all. Zero.

The initial TRI reports at least listed actual releases of chemicals into air, water, or soil where there was some potential for exposure. Yet even the original list of 336 chemicals did not result from any methodical risk assessment. Instead, these chemicals were taken from other lists of chemicals developed by legislators in two states, New Jersey and Maryland. And those lists derived mainly from surveys of companies in those two states that identified, primarily, the chemicals with the largest production volumes.

A risk-based reporting system would focus either on chemicals that pose very high risks or on those to which the public is likely to be exposed at potentially dangerous levels. TRI, introduced under the premise that people have a "right to know" the scope of chemical risks, misleads the public about these risks and exposures.

People should be informed about potential risks involuntarily imposed upon them. The "right to know," applied in this sense, simply reinforces historic common-law notions of justice. But expanding TRI to include materials accounting moves environmental policy into an entirely different arena in which "sustainability"–the current mantra–is equated with reduced consumption rather than lower environmental impact per unit of output. Risk becomes irrelevant.

As the EPA has noted, what gets reported may, indeed, get reduced. The more important question is whether that reduction generates any meaningful public benefit. With materials-accounting reporting, the likely answer is no.

Lynn Scarlett (lynns@reason.org) is executive director of the Reason Public Policy Institute and author of A New Environmentalism (National Center for Policy Analysis, 1996).