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Fighting Toxics: A Manual for Protecting your Family, Community, and Workplace

Fighting Toxics: A Manual for Protecting your Family, Community, and Workplace

by Barry National Toxics Campaign

Fighting Toxics is a step-by-step guide illustrating how to investigate the toxic hazards that may exist in your community, how to determine the risks they pose to your health, and how to launch an effective campaign to eliminate them.


Fighting Toxics is a step-by-step guide illustrating how to investigate the toxic hazards that may exist in your community, how to determine the risks they pose to your health, and how to launch an effective campaign to eliminate them.

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Island Press
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Fighting Toxics

A Manual for Protecting your Family, Community, and Workplace

By Gary Cohen, John O'Connor


Copyright © 1990 National Toxics Campaign
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-884-4


The Toxics Crisis


Uncontrolled toxic chemicals and wastes have reached crisis proportions. "Toxics" are perhaps our nation's Number 1 hidden health problem. Each of us now contains dozens of synthetic chemicals in our bodies that can cause cancer and birth defects. Our nation's waters show signs of increases of dangerous solvents, heavy metals, plastic residues, pesticides, and other chemical products from the modern petrochemical age. Acid rain, airborne toxics, and the chlorine-based chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are destroying our atmosphere. Asbestos in the nation's schools is poisoning thousands of children. Much of the food we eat contains residues of pesticides and herbicides that can cause long-term health damages. This year, more than a thousand new synthetic chemicals will enter our communities largely untested for their contribution to birth defects, reproductive damage, behavioral effects, and cancer.

The public health, the environment, and even life itself is being threatened because the United States and other nations overproduce and overuse very dangerous, largely untested, synthetic chemicals. Corporate negligence coupled with a weak and ineffective regulatory system is only making the situation worse. At the same time, real solutions are sitting on the shelf waiting to be put into practice. The hard question is not "how do we solve the toxics crisis?" but, rather, "how do we, as organized Americans, reshape corporate behavior and the legal system to get reasonable solutions put into action?" How can we muster the people power and political muscle to get lawmakers to put the available solutions into action?

The rallying cry for solutions to the toxic crisis has in large part emerged from citizen groups across the country who have had to protect their families from local toxic health threats. A set of new ideas and approaches has surfaced that for the first time points a way out of our current predicament. Citizens are taking steps to monitor toxic chemical producers and users as well as toxic waste facilities. The new democratic "citizen-based" regulatory approach—which we term environmental democracy—offers a fundamental shift in the way we think about regulating industry.

The basic strategy is quite simple: Since it is the chemical products and processes that have brought about the crisis, the solution lies in changing what is produced and how it is produced. Until recently, most decisions regarding the production and use of toxic substances have been made solely by industry. Now, however, citizens are beginning to pressure industry to reduce its production, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals. They are legitimately demanding to know what is being produced, how it is produced, and how much waste is being created at the same time. They are also asking how much of the toxic chemicals could be reduced or eliminated and replaced with safer substitutes. Citizen groups in countless communities are pushing all levels of government as well as chemical polluters directly to allow involvement in process and product decisions. Citizen groups are saying no to garbage incinerators and dumps and saying yes to waste reduction, recycling, and composting. Up until now government has given industry the privilege to emit deadly chemicals into our communities. In response to this assault, citizens must win the right of home rule—to be empowered to block the siting of dangerous waste facilities in their communities, while also participating in decisions about what is produced within their city limits. This is the basis of environmental democracy. To understand how this change is coming about, let us look deeper into the problem.


Toxic chemicals are in the air we breathe and the water we drink. They are in our workplaces, on our farms, and in our neighborhoods. Government inspections and industry's "self-reporting system" have confirmed over 30,000 hazardous waste sites throughout the country—a list that is growing at the rate of a thousand new sites every few months. This list does not include any of the 300,000 "unofficial" pits, ponds, and lagoons containing suspected hazardous waste. Seventy percent of these unofficial dumping areas are not lined with clay or other materials required at official sites, so contaminants are quickly absorbed into the ground and find their way into groundwater. According to a 1987 EPA report, all landfills, even the lined ones, eventually leak.

Over 560 million tons of hazardous waste is generated by American industry annually—more than 2 tons for every U.S. citizen. Most of our drinking water systems contain at least one and probably several cancer-causing chemicals. One national survey showed the presence of TCE (a toxic solvent) in one-third of the groundwater wells tested. Another authoritative government study identified more than 200 industrial chemicals and pesticides commonly found in the body tissue of 95 percent of Americans tested.

How dangerous are toxic chemicals to humans? The answer has several parts. First, industry, government, and citizens all agree that toxic chemicals pose a significant problem. Moreover, some statistics suggest that the spread of toxic chemicals into the environment is causing a public health crisis of major proportions. Each year 100,000 deaths are attributed to occupational exposure. It has been estimated that each week as many as 500 people in the United States die from diseases related to asbestos exposure alone. The birth defect rate has doubled in the last twenty-five years, and scientists believe that part of this increase is due to exposure to toxic chemicals. The sperm count has declined by roughly 20 percent since the emergence of synthetic petrochemicals in the 1940s.

But these frightening statistics have not been alarming enough to change state and national toxics policies. One reason for this failure is that it's extremely difficult to find evidence linking specific toxic chemicals to specific diseases, and this is where the conflict really begins. Part of the difficulty arises because most of the diseases contracted by people exposed to toxics are relatively common, such as lung cancer, which is believed to be triggered by a variety of factors. There is an abnormally high incidence of leukemia in persons who work regularly with benzene, for example, but companies are quick to point out that leukemia has also been related to other factors. Only a few rare diseases are indisputably caused by exposure to toxic materials: Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung or abdomen, occurs only in people who have been exposed to asbestos; angiosarcoma, a rare form of liver cancer, results from exposure to vinyl chloride gas. There are others, but cancers don't have labels that specify their cause. But as the scientific community continues to study these toxic chemicals and their interrelationship, they are beginning to understand the connection between toxic exposure of many types and higher rates of illness.

Beyond the threat to human health from chemical products and wastes there is also the threat of planet-wide destruction from certain substances. Particularly dangerous are the ozone destroyers, which include chlorine-based CFCs, halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform. These chemicals are used to make solvents, foams, refrigerants, and fire extinguishers. EPA studies show that the damage done to the outer atmosphere—the ozone layer—by CFCs and other ozone destroyers is so severe that an ever-growing hole is opening up over the South Pole and threatening the existence of this vital protective layer. The EPA estimates that more than 80 million new skin cancer cases may result over the next eighty years because of the damage done to the ozone layer. This layer, which protects life from the dangerous rays of the sun, has been depleted by 3 percent since 1979. Significant loss of this protective shield will mean the end of life on the planet.


Chemical manufacturers often confuse the issue of their pollution by insisting that modern life involves "socially acceptable risks" that come with the products that consumers demand. But whoever demanded polyvinyl chloride, DDT, dioxin, synthetic clothes, flammable textiles, and toxic building materials? Rather than "market demand," it is the chemical industry itself that has carefully shaped consumer demand by producing large volumes of toxic materials to replace natural-based products and advertising them to the American public. This major shift in production has been based not on what is necessarily needed by society but on the chemical industry's financial self-interest.

"Risk assessment" is the rage in the parts of the scientific community that are allied with the serious chemical polluters. We now hear arguments like "walking across the street is more dangerous than living next to a toxic dump site" or "eating bean sprouts and peanut butter is more dangerous than the cancer-causing pesticide residue in your food." These analyses distort the truth, however, by comparing similar volumes of natural versus synthetic material in a way that ignores the total volume of deadly wastes created when synthetics are made, as well as the effects of the sheer volume of synthetic chemicals produced. In 1980, some 370 billion pounds of synthetic chemicals were produced. When nonsynthetic chemical production is added to the total, the chemical industry's annual production is roughly 500 billion pounds—ten times that of the food industry. In 1987, U.S. industry reported dumping 22 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water, and land. According to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the actual figure may be closer to 400 billion pounds. The annual production of vinyl chloride (6.5 billion pounds) equals the dry weight of all U.S. fruit production in a year. While there are indeed exposures in the natural world that must be guarded against (asbestos, aflotoxins), the dangers of new synthetic materials far outweigh the risks associated with natural ones.

The chemical industry would also like us to believe that cancer and other toxic-related diseases are our own fault—caused by lifestyle choices such as smoking cigarettes. The facts, however, show that while there is a high incidence of lung cancer in cigarette smokers, environmental factors beyond the immediate control of the individual play a key role as well. A recent study of females in New Jersey and Wyoming shows a strong connection between cancer and environment. Although women in New Jersey smoke virtually the same number of cigarettes as those in Wyoming, the women in New Jersey—a chemical manufacturing state—had a cancer death rate 36 percent higher than those in Wyoming. "Cancer maps" of types of cancer show a similar pattern of high risk for urban dwellers. Urban industrial centers as well as rural areas near petrochemical facilities expose residents to a cancer risk that has little or nothing to do with lifestyle.

Again, while we must guard against all health threats, we cannot eliminate naturally occurring materials (such as radon) in some regions of the country. We can, however, exercise control over the toxic synthetic materials that pervade our lives. While the threat posed by asbestos, radiation, and heavy metals has received significant attention under law (with improvements still needed), the synthetic chemical industry—which presents the greatest public health threat—remains largely unregulated.


The petrochemical industry got its start during World War II when the demand for products far outweighed what was available. Rubber, for example, normally supplied from parts of Asia, was not available, so synthetic rubber was developed, marketed, and sold as a substitute. Silk for parachutes as well as shortages in cotton and wool for clothing led to the invention and mass production of synthetic fibers—rayon, Dacron, and nylon. Plastics were used to replace scarce metals unavailable for aircraft production or to replace leather. When soldiers first returned from the South Pacific with malaria, the first mass-produced synthetic pesticide, DDT, ushered in the "pesticide revolution": the great war on the insect kingdom. Scientists learned how to develop new products by splitting, cracking, distilling, and recombining petrochemical feedstocks into new products never before found on the face of the earth.

Since the 1940s, the chemical industry has expanded at a rate that is twice that of the U.S. economy's growth as a whole. The key to the industry's economic success is that it has been able to mass produce millions of tons of synthetic materials for sale at a relatively low price. Compared to other industries, the chemical industry requires massive capital and little labor. The industry has easily penetrated almost every aspect of the market, replacing wood and paper with plastic, cotton and wool with rayon and nylon, leather with vinyl, glass and steel with plastic, natural farming with chemical-intensive farming, and on and on down the line.

But with these technical innovations have come serious problems. Early pesticide use killed nearly one-half of the U.S. bird population in the 1940s and 1950s by some accounts. Cancer rates around chemical production facilities (even in rural areas) are higher than in the rest of the nation. Streams, rivers, and lakes have been made toxic by chemical discharges. There is a national groundwater crisis and a host of other life-threatening problems that face us today. Thousands of chemical dumps litter the nation and will require expensive cleanups over the coming decades.

The synthetic chemical industry is definitely one of the nation's largest sources of toxic pollution. According to Dr. Barry Commoner, director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, the industry generates two barrels of waste for every barrel of product. A recent review of the German chemical industry showed that in plastics there are four units of waste created for every unit of product; in pesticides, three units of waste for each unit of product; and for synthetic dyes, eight units of waste for every unit of product. Thus the industry accounts for more waste than product in many of its operations! According to several EPA studies, the chemical industry generates 70 to 85 percent of all toxic wastes. In one way or another, the industry is responsible for the vast majority of 30,000 hazardous waste sites recognized by the U.S. government.

Solving the public health crisis posed by widespread chemical production will require transforming an industry that produces too many dangerous synthetic products into one that produces safer and more socially useful materials and products. The solution lies in producing and using much less of the most toxic materials and in finding safe substitutes for high-hazard synthetic materials. This approach not only removes the most dangerous materials from the market, but also reduces the amount of toxic waste that is generated and ultimately released to air, water, and land.

Pesticides provide a perfect example. Before World War II and the use of synthetic pesticides, family farmers were losing about one-third of their crop annually to insects. Today, after the pesticide saturation of our farmland, when more than $15 billion each year passes from the farmer to the chemical industry, the farmers are still losing roughly one-third of their crop to insects. And this is after yields per acre have increased dramatically, due primarily to fertilizers and hybrid seed. In other words, the bugs pound for pound are taking a larger amount of the crop than ever while pesticides are becoming less effective and costly. Since World War II, moreover, the number of insects and mites known to be resistant to one insecticide or another has grown from less than 10 species to more than 447 species. Resistant species of rodents, fungi, and weeds are also on the rise.

To solve the toxic chemical crisis will require pressuring the petrochemical industry to reduce the manufacture, use, transportation, and disposal of the worst toxic substances. It will also require getting consumers to demand safer products in their homes and safer food on their tables. Finally, it will require getting industrial workers and farmers to demand safer working conditions and the right to refuse work that is hazardous to their health. In short, it will take a major reorientation of our society to shift from a toxics-based economy to one that is safe and sustainable. But this transition will happen only if citizens are educated and organized in their own communities.


The toxic pollution problem is made up of several interrelated parts that we will call the toxics cycle. The toxics cycle refers to the production, use, and disposal of chemicals and products considered necessary in our society. It is the process that transforms raw materials in the factories and releases them into the marketplace in the form of products and into our neighborhoods in the form of wastes. Probably at least one aspect of the cycle visibly intrudes upon each of our daily lives: the smelly dump in your neighborhood, the smog in the skyline, the dangerous products under the kitchen sink, the solvents on the job, even the chemical fumes from the railroad accident down the street. But what is not so apparent is the way each aspect of the cycle is part of a larger process.


Excerpted from Fighting Toxics by Gary Cohen, John O'Connor. Copyright © 1990 National Toxics Campaign. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary Cohen is former policy director of the National Toxics Campaign, chief administrator of the National Toxics Campaign and chief administrator of the National Toxics Campaign Fund. At the time Fighting Toxics was published, he had ten years of experience as a writer and researcher and had been involved with NTC for five years.

John O'Connor became involved in community health and safety issues because he grew up behind the Raybestos Company, which made asbestos brake liners and emitted asbestos into his community. John watched as many friends and members of his community died due to their exposure to asbestos. He has a light dusting of asbestos in his lungs himself. In the 1970s, he led the fight with Massachusetts Fair Share for a state right-to-know law. In 1983, he helped to found the National Campaign Against Toxics Hazards (which grew into the National Toxics Campaign). He is formerly executive director of the National Toxics Campaign and has been one of the preeminent spokespersons for the nation's grassroots toxics movement.

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