Seventh Biennial Report of the IJC  [Printer-friendly version]
June 15, 1994


[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. was first introduced to the
precautionary principle by the visionary leadership of conservative
Republican Gordon Durnil who saw that precautionary action is the
only hope for restoring and protecting the Great Lakes.]

[RPR introduction: In the U.S., precautionary thinking began in the
Great Lakes.

In 1978 the U.S. and Canada had signed a "Great Lakes Water Quality
Agreement," binding both nations to "virtually eliminate persistent
toxic substances" from the Great Lakes ecosystem. In 1990, 1992, and
1994 the IJC described a "virtual elimination strategy" to get
persistent toxic chemicals out of the Great Lakes and keep them out.

During 1990-1994 the International Joint Commission (IJC) published
reports laying out a strategy for the "virtual elimination" of toxic
chemicals from the Great Lakes. The IJC is a government agency created
by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between the U.S. and Canada.

These early IJC reports started a revolution in thinking.

We believe these IJC reports of 1990, 1992, and 1994 are the
first time a U.S. government agency explicitly embraced a
precautionary approach. So you can hear the original language, here
is a portion of Chapter 3 from the 7th Biennial Report of the IJC

At the time this report was written, the U.S. chairperson of the IJC
was Gordon Durnil, a strong environmentalist and conservative

Excerpt from CHAPTER THREE (of the IJC's 7th Biennial Report, 1994)

Strategic Thinking and the Need for Further Change

Persistent Toxic Substances: The Commission's Position

As research findings demonstrate linkages between persistent toxic
substances and biological injury, they continue to reinforce the
Commission's conclusions, which are fundamental to its proposed policy

** persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and
to humans to permit their release in any quantity, and

** all persistent toxic substances are dangerous to the environment,
deleterious to the human condition, and can no longer be tolerated in
the ecosystem, whether or not unassailable scientific proof of acute
or chronic damage is universally accepted.

The Commission reiterates its stance that the very existence of human-
produced persistent toxic substances in the Great Lakes ecosystem is
inconsistent with maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem and hence
with the Purpose of the [1978 Water Quality] Agreement [between the
U.S. and Canada]. The Great Lakes Water Quality Board has confirmed
that the risks to humans are high, that there is a real probability of
substantial effects, and that such injury from certain persistent
toxic substances merits immediate measures to protect human health.

The characteristics of persistent toxic substances make them much less
amenable to traditional pollution control efforts such as discharge
limits to set acceptable levels in the environment, end-of-the-pipe
technology and disposal regulations.

The idea of a non-zero "assimilative" capacity in the environment or
in our bodies (and hence allowable discharges) for such chemicals is
no longer relevant. The Great Lakes Water Quality Board supports this
view, concluding that there is no acceptable assimilative capacity for
persistent, bioaccumulative toxic substances. It states, therefore,
that the only appropriate water quality objective is zero, even though
interim objectives may be needed.

Within the environment's carrying capacity for human activity, there
is no space for human loadings of persistent toxic substances. Hence,
there can be no acceptable loading of chemicals that accumulate for
very long periods, except that which nature itself generates.

Moreover, conventional scientific concepts of dose-response and
acceptable "risk" can no longer be defined as "good" scientific and
management bases for defining acceptable levels of pollution. They are
outmoded and inappropriate ways of thinking about persistent toxics.

The production and release of these substances into the environment
must, therefore, be considered contrary to the [1978 Water Quality]
Agreement legally, unsupportable ecologically and dangerous to health
generally. Above all, they are ethically and morally unacceptable.

The limits on allowable quantities of these substances entering the
environment must be effectively zero, and the primary means to achieve
zero should be the prevention of their production, use and release
rather than their subsequent removal.

Consequently, vigorous policy is needed to eliminate all persistent
toxic substances, except in very specialized, unavoidable, controlled
and hopefully temporary applications.

While a broad attack on these substances is required, we must begin
somewhere. The Commission has previously proposed beginning with
eleven Critical Pollutants* and still supports this approach. At the
same time, the Commission has concluded that organochlorines are a
major class of pollutants that should be addressed collectively due to
their large number and the egregious characteristics of many of them.

Precaution in the introduction and continued use of chemical
substances in commerce is a basic underpinning of the proposed virtual
elimination strategy. It is generally agreed, in principle, that the
burden of proof concerning the "safety" of chemicals should lie with
the proponent for the manufacture, import or use of at least
substances new to commerce in Canada and the United States, rather
than with society as a whole to provide absolute proof of adverse

This principle should in the Commission's view, be adopted for all
human-made chemicals shown or reasonably suspected to be persistent
and toxic, including those already manufactured or otherwise in
commerce. The onus should be on the producers and users of any
suspected persistent toxic substance to prove that it is, in fact,
both "safe" and necessary, even if it is already in commerce. As one
participant at the October 1993 Biennial Meeting said, "Chemicals are
not innocent until proven guilty, people are."

Current Approaches

Canada's Environmental Protection Act provides for the review of
existing substances and control of dangerous substances, but its
implementation has been slow to address specific chemicals for
regulation. It also appears possible that legal challenges will
further render it ineffective in controlling persistent toxic
substances. Provincial action under Ontario's Municipal-Industrial
Strategy for Abatement (MISA) can also be used to eliminate discharges
of persistent toxic substances.

The United States Government has stated that available mechanisms can
be used to invoke regulatory action without definitive proof of a
causal relationship. However, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which
is used to screen the introduction of new chemicals, has to date
failed to screen out many chemicals. Among existing chemicals, it has
only limited the use and manufacture of PCBs. The Great Lakes Water
Quality Board concluded that the act has been rendered ineffective for
the timely control of existing chemicals.

The available approaches have not, in practice, been effective in
either country to screen a multitude of chemicals. A realistic review
of what chemicals have, in fact, been removed from commerce indicates
that the current approach does not provide an effective screening
process. Again, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board emphasized that
the problem lies not with the basic legislation, but with "significant
barriers to the effective implementation of this authority."

The basis for a precautionary approach and reverse onus can also be
found in the Agreement. It is the unequivocal statement of the Parties
to the Agreement that they intend to pursue an objective of virtual
elimination of inputs within a philosophy of zero discharge of
persistent toxic substances. These are forward-looking provisions,
even if they were focused at the time on regulatory and technological
solutions. However, society as a whole is beginning to realize the
importance and implications of this approach, as it come to grips with
the immensity of the persistent toxics problem. Even less well
advanced is a determination to implement virtual elimination
rigorously as a way to deal with persistent toxic substances.
Pollution prevention programs, while an important step forward, do not
necessarily enshrine this concept.

Weight of Evidence

The 1992 Biennial Report also urged adoption of a "weight of evidence"
approach to reaching conclusions on these issues. This approach takes
into account the cumulative weight of the many studies that address
the question of injury or the likelihood of injury to living
organisms. If, taken together, the amount and consistency of evidence
across a wide range of circumstances and/or toxic substances are
judged sufficient to indicate the reality or a strong probability of a
linkage between certain substances or class of substances and injury,
a conclusion of a causal relationship can be made.

This conclusion is made on the basis of common sense, logic and
experience as well as formal science. Once this point is reached, and
taking a precautionary approach, there can be no defensible
alternative to recommending that the input of those substances to the
Great Lakes be stopped. As noted above, the burden of proof must shift
to the proponent (manufacturer, importer or user) of the substance to
show that it does not or will not cause the suspected harm, nor meet
the definition of a persistent toxic substance.

The Commission's definition of "weight of evidence" is a pragmatic one
and not based on arbitrary rules or formulae. It is consistent with
the use of this term in science and law. The Commission's use of this
term has, however, generated considerable discussion and different
concepts from the perspective of various disciplines. Also, the
question of standard of evidence in this field is evolving. Scholars
and practitioners have been encouraged to consider more precise

The Great Lakes Water Quality and Science Advisory Boards, and the two
federal governments in their responses to the 1992 Biennial Report,
have all accepted such an approach in principle. It is clear, however,
that in practice its application can result in different outcomes.
This appears to be the case with chlorine, because of different
standards of evidence or different levels of acceptable probability.
Governments, industry and other participants in the policy arena
should collaborate to codify a set of guidelines as to what factors
should be taken into account in weighing evidence.

Risk Assessment

Another relevant procedure is risk assessment. Clearly, the process of
assessing the relative risks to the environment and/or humans from
alternative actions is useful for some purposes. Both countries have
formal frameworks for risk assessment that are, by and large,
compatible, although some discrepancies in methodology exist and
improved integration of human health and environmental risks is
needed. Risk assessment is useful in decision-making, especially in
setting action priorities, but is not directly relevant to the basic
virtual elimination commitment. The Commission does not accept the
argument that the elimination of persistent toxic substances should be
subject to a risk-benefit calculation, as that is not the approach of
the [1978 Water Quality] Agreement.

When risk assessment is used to provide information, however, it is
important to pay careful attention to the communication of that risk
information to the public. Underlying assumptions and caveats, as well
as the question of different perceptions of risk across jurisdictional
boundaries, also must be communicated. Of specific concern is the lack
of uniformity in sport fishing advisories. The Great Lakes Water
Quality Board recommended collective effort among state and provincial
authorities to develop joint public advisories to ensure uniformity.
Furthermore, there is a lack of any public risk information in most
other circumstances.

A fuller accounting of environmental, economic and social values is
also needed when making decisions. At one level, the determination of
what natural resources are being used in human processes should be
part of economic accounting. Similarly, the ramifications of
"environmental" policy changes, which affect the amount of resources
available for production and consumption (including reduction of the
ability to pollute or use traditional technologies), must also be
taken into account.

In some cases, it will not be possible to eliminate substances in use
"overnight," especially if acceptable substitutes are not readily
available, as that could cause serious short-term economic and social
disruption. However, to continue to introduce new products without
this accounting, and to continue resisting a strategy that changes our
production and consumption habits and moves away from reliance on
persistent toxic substances, will be disastrous in the long term from
all perspectives. Again, a reasoned but sure process of transition,
and a new way of thinking about production and consumption decisions,
are needed.

In 1986, the World Health Organization used its definition of health
as a starting point for the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion
(Ottawa Charter). It emphasizes the dependence of health on the
environment and identifies peace, shelter, food, education, income,
social justice, equity, the maintenance of a stable ecosystem and
sustainable resource development as components of health. It is not
sufficient for governments, industry and commerce to react only to
proven instances of injury. They also must provide a preventive
program to enhance personal and societal security against
unintentional intrusions on human health, at the same time other basic
needs and a high quality of life are met.

While not widely recognized in practice to date, this philosophy is
consistent with the ecosystem concept of the Great Lakes Water Quality
Agreement, as well as the sustainable development concept embraced by
the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development
(Brundtland Report). This also has subsequently become the policy of
both federal and several state and provincial governments.

Just as human health is dependent on the absence of environmental
degradation, however, ecosystem integrity is dependent on more than
environmental quality. It also must include economic, social, cultural
and political dimensions, not the least of which is a healthy
population and healthy communities. The Commission has previously
observed that "long-term economic sustainability, including the
existence of a healthy and creative work force, depends on a healthy
environment. Paradoxically, a healthy environment depends on the
existence of vibrant local and regional economies."

Despite these efforts, an assessment of the overall policy response to
the environmental health studies and public concern to date must be
characterized as limited and disappointing. The mainstream response
from individuals in government, industry and elsewhere is to debate
the reality or magnitude of the risk to the health of humans and other
components of the ecosystem. Even if the issue is recognized, the
focus tends to be on setting priorities, developing lists, devoting
resources to avoid action and lobby against it, largely on the basis
of debatable short-term economic impacts, rather than on coming to
grips with and addressing the enormity of the problem.

Chemical and associated industries have an obligation to protect human
and other populations from the adverse effects of substances they
bring into existence and use. The Commission recognizes and
congratulates those industrial representatives who have responsibly
engaged in dialogue with the Commission and others, and have taken
pioneering steps to address these problems. It is important and
inevitable that the business sector act increasingly to lead rather
than resist a broad movement towards manufacturing processes that
eliminate the production and use of persistent toxic substances, and
that they embrace a new, ecosystemic approach to business and
governmental decision-making.

One progressive aspect of the Agreement and the Commission's work
pursuant to it has been the emergence of a Great Lakes-St. Lawrence
ecosystem "community" and numerous more specific communities-of-
interest under that umbrella. This development occurred first in the
community of scientists working across jurisdictions and disciplines
to enhance learning, understanding and the efficient use of resources.
In recent years, the active community of Great Lakes interests has
expanded greatly. A variety of new organizations have emerged over the
past decade focusing on regional concerns.

Several governmental institutions have evolved to address Great Lakes
ecosystem issues. This phenomenon has included a refocusing of the
Great Lakes Commission, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the
Council of Great Lakes Governors. A number of nongovernmental and
municipal organizations also have involved interested citizens and
specific interests. These citizens and organizations tend to begin at
a nontechnical level, but become increasingly more sophisticated in
knowledge and approach. A wide range of organizations fit this
description, such as Great Lakes United, the Council of Great Lakes
Industries and the International Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Mayors'
Conference, to name only a few examples.

The Commission encourages this process and its broadening to new areas
of the Great Lakes community of interest. Organizations whose mission
is to inform and activate the general public should strive to broaden
their membership and audience, by improving their media and public
affairs approaches and the coordination among organizations to ensure
consistent, accurate messages. All of these bodies have played an
important role, even if temporary, in the institutional component of
the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The voluntary sector is a key component in broadening Agreement
awareness and involvement. This sector needs to be encouraged within
the Great Lakes institutional mosaic, but the organizations and
movements involved, while enthusiastic, are often stymied by lack of
scientific data and interpretive skills. The Commission's Great Lakes
Science Advisory Board has emphasized that empowerment, participation
and involvement of the entire Great Lakes community in the achievement
of the goals of the Agreement is vital to its success.

Scientists should make themselves available to communicate with these
groups and with their local communities at large. Employers, whether
governments, private sector or academia, should permit and encourage
such mutually beneficial linkages. Universities, colleges and other
institutions of higher education in particular have a function in
supporting the wider Great Lakes community. Beyond their educational
roles, they can serve as catalysts to bring scientists, industries,
governments and citizens together to learn from one another and to
develop coordinated action plans....

Ecosystem Boundaries

Geographically, the Great Lakes ecosystem does not stop at the map
boundaries specified in the Agreement. Ecosystem boundaries are
neither fully jurisdictional, geophysical or even demographic in their
definition. They differ for the water, biological, atmospheric and
human dimensions of the ecosystem. The scope of an ecosystem's
boundaries can also differ depending on what economic, social or
political parameters are being considered.

Ecologically, the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem clearly extends
downstream from the Agreement boundary at the end of the international
section of the St. Lawrence River, deep into Quebec and possibly to
the St. Lawrence estuary. There is evidence, for example, that
contaminants are passing downstream from the Cornwall-Massena area and
into the flesh of marine mammals and fish. This is a geographical and
ecological reality requiring that, at a minimum, concern and dialogue
should extend beyond the current "legal" Agreement boundaries. Whether
or not these formal boundaries of the Agreement merit reconsideration
at an appropriate time, from the Commission's ecosystemic standpoint,
the issue will eventually need to be addressed in some manner if a
fully ecosystemic approach is to be achieved.

In a number of ways, therefore, a significant modification of
institutions and attitudes is required to help resolve Great Lakes
Basin Ecosystem issues. The policy frameworks exist and are subscribed
to by both federal governments. This allows a new way of thinking and
mobilization of concern to move forward....


The Commission also believes that our two nations are still at a
turning point of opportunity. They can still make a difference. The
legacy we choose to leave for future generations can be either one of
diminished options and well-being, or an enhanced one. To choose the
latter, a strong, coordinated plan of action with target dates is
urgently needed. It should be designed to effect a new way of doing
business, and be based on the consideration of six basic principles:

Principle 1

The Governments of the United States and Canada, along with the
relevant states and provinces, should act decisively on the
commitments of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement wherein they
agreed that:

"The purpose of the Parties is to restore and maintain the chemical,
physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes
Basin Ecosystem," and

"The discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts be prohibited and
the discharge of any or all persistent toxic substances be virtually
eliminated," within a philosophy of zero discharge.

It is the assumption of the Commission that the federal governments
continue to agree on this fundamental statement of intent upon which
the Commission builds its advice. Governments should also ensure that
their actions are coordinated through effectively functioning
mechanisms for consultation, cooperative research and common action.

Principle 2

Representatives of industry, when presented with evidence of ecosystem
health concerns about substances used in commerce, should react by
embracing open dialogue, data sharing and fact finding to resolve,
rather than deny, concerns and effect an orderly and timely transition
to those solutions.

Principle 3

Representatives of environmental and other organizations should offer
their expertise to help develop pragmatic solutions to the transition
issues that face governments, industries and their employees,
consumers and others in adopting preventive strategies.

Principle 4

While the scientific process should be value neutral, scientists
should be forthcoming in responses to public concerns and the
provision of current information about the health of the Great Lakes
ecosystem, especially as it relates to human health.

Principle 5

News media should review their policies about reporting on the
widespread use and effects of persistent toxic substances and evaluate
their responsibility to inform the public about them.

Principle 6

Citizens should constantly ask political, social and industrial
leaders about the effects of the use and discharge of pollutants on
this and future generations.

Gordon K. Durnil, Co-chairman
Claude Lanthier, Co-chairman
Hilary P. Cleveland, Commissioner
James A. Macaulay, Commissioner
Robert F. Goodwin, Commissioner
Gordon W. Walker, Commissioner