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How scientifically illiterate are environmental activists? Along with other journalists on a bus tour of toxic waste sites, I was recently lectured by our Greenpeace guide on the evils of chlorine. That was nothing new — like Roman Senator Cato demanding the destruction of Carthage, Greenpeace habitually calls for "a chlorine-free society." What made the lecture particularly bizarre was that the bus was then passing through the world’s most famous expanse of chlorine — the Utah salt flats.
Chlorine is most familiar to us as a water disinfectant and as bleach, but is also 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 use chlorine and almost all use chlorine chemistry in their manufacture. By some estimates, chlorine is involved in almost 60% of commercial chemical uses.
Lest one think that a ban on chlorine-based chemicals is espoused only by recognized radicals, EPA Administrator Carol Browner announced earlier this year 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.
The cost of a total ban on chlorinated chemicals would be excruciating, as much as $90 billion a year to employ available substitutes, according to one industry-sponsored study. And sometimes there are no available substitutes, as with the chlorination of water.
Greenpeace calls chlorine "the devil’s chemical."
But chlorine’s critics argue that we can’t wait for the scientific evidence to roll in. Demonstrating this "ban now, ask questions later" approach, a 1993 Greenpeace report attempting to link chlorine and breast cancer declared:
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 . .
But, it went on, "It is unethical, irresponsible, and unrealistic to require strict proof, because such an approach takes preventative action only after irreversible damage to health and environment have taken place."
In other words, burn the witch now — don’t give her a chance to hex our children and our crops.
Environmentalists say that organochlorines may be responsible for any number of ills. That’s true, but only in the sense that the class of chemicals is so large that some must cause harm. A city the size of Chicago is likely to contain more murderers and thieves than is Peoria.
Nobody would seek to ban strawberries or blueberries because mistletoe berries are poisonous. But somehow, according to environmentalists, we have to ban the organochlorine used in plastic-making because a different one is used in a pesticide accused of thinning bird eggshells.
This thinking also ignores the simple fact that, when discussing potential harm of chemicals, it’s necessary to distinguish between levels of exposure. Indeed, salt, a.k.a. sodium chloride, is vital in small doses but fatal in large ones.
Which brings us back to that nasty reality that a huge number of chemicals and compounds containing chlorine are natural — over 1,500 at latest count. Environmentalists respond that humans and animals have developed evolutionary defenses against natural chemicals. In fact, we are still killed by age-old natural carcinogens such as high levels of radon and ultraviolet light, even while we’re deluged with apparently safe chemicals such as those in corn, potatoes, and other foods new, evolutionarily speaking, to most human diets.
Activists want chlorine treated like suspected witches once were: "Burn now, ask questions later."
They also claim the natural compounds are simpler and more stable than synthetics. That’s true of salt, but not of many other naturals. Indeed, according to Berkeley researcher Bruce Ames, broccoli contains a compound similar to dioxin, which many environmentalists call the most deadly chemical ever created by man.
There is nothing magical nor artificial about attaching a chlorine atom to a carbon atom, which is all a chlorinated chemical is. 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 do chlorines as a class show no special propensity to cause cancer, the addition of chlorine can actually detoxify certain compounds.
Do Greenpeace and its allies have any chance of getting a total chlorine ban? No, but even a partial ban, based on no scientific evidence, can still cost us billions, and wreak havok by banning life-saving chemicals.