Rachel's Democracy & Health News #930

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, October 25, 2007..............Printer-friendly version
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Featured stories in this issue...

Industry's Plan for Us
  The fossil fuel corporations have a plan for us, and it does not
  include any substantial investment in renewable solar energy. Their
  plan is focused on "geo-engineering" -- which means re-engineering the
  oceans, the atmosphere and the earth itself to make it possible to
  continue burning fossil fuels. U.S. EPA is on board with the plan.
Dioxins Can Alter Normal Sex Ratios for Births
  Using birth data and an inventory of pollution sources, the study
  concluded that early exposure to dioxins -- even at 25 km (15.5 miles)
  away from the source -- increased the risk of cancer later in life in
  a group of 20,000 people surveyed during the 1990s. The large-scale
  burning of municipal and medical waste is the primary source of
  dioxins in Canada.... but they are also created by electrical power
Criminal Element
  "The idea that a society could have systematically poisoned its
  youngest children with the same neurotoxins in two different ways over
  the same century is almost impossible to believe."
The Lethal Consequences of Breathing Fire
  When the Victorians first conceived of incinerators in the late
  19th century they called them 'destructor units', as this perfectly
  describes what they do. In principle little has changed. Despite the
  best efforts of the industry to rebrand and clean up incineration, the
  fact remains that 'garbage in' means 'garbage out'.
Environmental Nasty Surprises as a Window on Precautionary Thinking
  How often will environmental nasty surprises emerge? How long will
  it take us to recognize and address them? How much damage will they
  do? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A precautionary framework for
  environmental decision making would respond to the urgency of such
  questions by attempting to shape technologies in ways calculated to
  make future nasty surprises less frequent and less severe.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #930, Oct. 25, 2007
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By Peter Montague

It now seems clear that the coal and oil industries are not going to
allow the United States to curb global warming by making major
investments in renewable sources of energy. These fossil fuel
corporations simply have too much at stake to allow it.

Simple physics tells us that the way to minimize the human
contribution to global warming is to leave the remaining fossil fuels
in the ground -- stop mining them as soon as humanly possible. This
obvious solution would require us to turn the nation's industrial
prowess to developing solar power in its many forms as quickly as we
can -- we would need a "'Manhattan Project' for Energy," as the
strategy journal of the top U.S. military planners said recently.

Look at the relative size of our current government investments in
solar vs. fossil fuels. In 2007 the federal Department of Energy spent
$168 million on solar research. On the other hand each year since
1991 the U.S. government has spent 1000 times that amount -- $169
billion -- subsidizing the flow of oil from the Middle East, according
to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our top military planners. And that
figure doesn't include what consumers paid for the oil itself. If our
solar investment remains one-tenth of one percent of our investment in
oil, there will be no solar power to speak of in our future.

A rapid shift to renewables based on solar would not be easy and I
don't want to minimize the effort required. It's stupendously large.
But we've undertaken heroic industrial projects before -- and with
notable success. We mobilized quickly and massively to defeat the
combined industrial might of Germany, Japan, and Italy in less than
five years after Pearl Harbor. The original Manhattan Project turned
a physicist's theory into a working A-bomb in less than 6 years; just
building the gaseous diffusion plant near Oak Ridge, Tennessee was a
scientific, engineering and industrial feat of astonishing magnitude
and complexity. The Marshall Plan successfully rebuilt Europe after
WW II. Our Man-on-the-Moon program succeeded just 11 years after the
Russians tweaked our national ego by launching Sputnik into orbit in

Yes, a shift to solar-powered renewables would be difficult, but it's
doable. Unfortunately, any plan to shift from fossil fuels to solar
has three fatal flaws, from the viewpoint of Big Oil and Big Coal:

1. The fossil fuel corporations have an enormous investment in fossil
infrastructure and they own vast quantities of fossil fuels that they
plan to exploit with little real effort over the next 50 years. They
have been making excellent profits for a century and, as fossil fuels
get scarcer, prices will only rise. In 2006, ExxonMobil reaped profits
larger than any other corporation in history ($39.5 billion). If the
U.S. does not invest seriously in renewable alternatives, we'll have
no choice but to pay whatever price the fossil corporations demand.
Just a few days ago oil hit $90 a barrel; eight years ago it was
selling for $10 a barrel. No wonder ExxonMobil now has a book value
larger than the national budget of France. Naturally, they intend to
maintain their market share, even if it means doing everything in
their power to thwart progress.

2. The fossil fuel business is 100 years old and fully understood. No
surprises lie ahead. But renewables? Who knows which renewables will
win out in the marketplace of ideas? If Uncle Sam were to invest as
much money in solar power as it has so far invested in the Iraq war
(roughly $800 billion), who knows what new technologies would emerge?
(Incidentally, if we maintain our current solar research budget at
$168 million per year, it will be 4761 years before we have spent
as much on solar research as we have, so far, spent in Iraq.) New
technical innovations could be very unsettling for complacent
industries like coal and oil. For them, innovation spells trouble.
Innovation could render them irrelevant in a decade or two and they
could disappear just like the makers of whale-oil lamps and buggy
whips 100 years ago.

3. Coal and oil are highly centralized. It's their nature. Whoever
owns the fossil fuels, the big central power plants, and the
distribution systems can call the shots. But solar? The sun shines
everywhere and it's free. Suppose some woman at MIT develops a solar
panel that you paint onto your roof (from a can you buy at Home
Depot), attach some wires, and start generating your own electricity?
Central control disappears. This would be like tossing a hand grenade
into the current corporate/political structure. Of course even right-
wing politicians love lefty-sounding slogans like "power to the
people," but they don't mean real power like electricity or hot water
or home-made hydrogen for transportation fuel. (Check out the Nova TV
program, "Saved by the Sun," which briefly mentions paint-on solar

No, a serious plan to focus the nation's industrial prowess onto a
solar-powered rebirth will not be allowed by the fossil corporations.
Instead we'll be offered a rolling circus of technical fixes aimed at
keeping coal and oil streaming out of the ground. The circus is
already well under way.

A Sulfur Parasol to Blot Out the Sun

Just this week the New York Times published a proposal to attach a
fire hose to some lighter-than-air balloons for the purpose of
injecting at least a million tons of sulfur particles into the upper
atmosphere, to create a giant parasol to cool the planet. Such a
scheme might further deplete the Earth's ozone shield, which remains
frayed from DuPont's earlier botched experiment with CFCs. And it
could create large-scale acid rain. But contemplating these clownish
Rube Goldberg solutions may at least relieve the stress of facing what
really needs to be done.

A new word enters our vocabulary: Geo-engineering

Instead of allowing the U.S. to make the transition to solar power,
the fossil corporations have evidently decided it's better to
re-engineer the oceans and the atmosphere -- and perhaps even the
planetary orbit of the Earth itself -- to make it possible to continue
burning fossil fuels for another 50 years.

Grand schemes for re-engineering the planet now have their own special
name -- geo-engineering. The word means, "global-scale interventions
to alter the oceans and the atmosphere so fossil corporations can
continue business as usual."

The fire-hose-and-balloon project is only one of many "geo-
engineering" schemes in the works.

Fertilizing the Oceans with Iron

There are serious plans afoot to dump huge quantities of soluble iron
into the oceans as fertilizer, intending to stimulate the growth of
plankton, which will then eat carbon dioxide from the air. As the
plankton die, their carcasses will sink to the bottom of the ocean,
carrying all that carbon dioxide with them, where it will remain
for... for... well, actually, nobody knows for how long. How long
might it be before that dormant carbon dioxide comes back to bite us?
Nobody knows. Would such a plan disrupt life in the oceans? Nobody
knows. But private firms are pressing ahead with large-scale ocean-
fertilization experiments as we speak. (They are hoping to get rich
selling "carbon credits" to polluters so the fossil corporations can
continue contaminating the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We might
well ask the ethical question, who gave these cowboys permission to
run geo-engineering experiments in the world's oceans?)

This is all very reminiscent of earlier plans to bury nuclear waste
in the floor of the Pacific Ocean, on the theory that the seabed has
lain dormant for many millions of years. But that plan never caught on
because few people could develop sufficient confidence that the future
would unfold exactly like the past. There was that nagging doubt...
what if we've missed something important and we turn out to be wrong?
What if our understanding is flawed? There was too much at stake, and
the plan was shelved. (With carbon dioxide, of course, there's far
more at stake.)

Mirrors in Orbit

Now there's a new plan to rocket mirrors into orbit around the
earth. Another parasol to block sunlight. The mirrors would consist of
a mesh of aluminum threads a millionth of an inch in diameter, "like a
window screen made of exceedingly fine metal wire," says Lowell Wood
at Lawrence Livermore Lab, who dreamed up the idea. The only drawback
to this plan mentioned so far is its enormous dollar cost: to reduce
incoming sunlight by 1% would require -- get this -- 600,000 square
miles of mirror, which is larger than the combined areas of Arkansas,
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia,
Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia,
Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey,
Delaware and Rhode Island.

Of course the U.S. has a long history of large-scale interventions
above the clouds. In 1962 we conducted an experiment called "Starfish
Prime" in which we exploded a small nuclear weapon (equivalent to 1.4
million tons of TNT) 400 miles up in the atmosphere, just to see what
would happen. What happened came as a complete surprise to the
geniuses who set off the blast. The explosion left so much residual
radiation trapped in space that the world's first communication
satellite -- Telstar, which was launched after Starfish -- failed
because it encountered crippling levels of radiation. Ultimately, one-
third of all the low-orbit satellites in space at the time were
disabled by the residual radiation from Starfish Prime. Another
unanticipated cost of Starfish was the temporary shutdown of
communications and electrical supply in Hawaii, 1300 kilometers from
the blast. Who knew?

Project RBR

Despite lessons supposedly learned from Starfish, just last year the
Pentagon proposed a project called RBR ("Radiation Belt
Remediation"). The RBR project would generate "very low frequency
radio waves to flush particles from the [Van Allen] radiation belts
and dump them into the upper atmosphere over one or several days."
(There are two Van Allen radiation belts; the one closest to earth
lies 400 to 4000 miles in the sky.) The stated purpose of the RBR
project is to "protect hundreds of low earth-orbiting satellites from
having their onboard electronics ruined by charged particles in
unusually intense Van Allen radiation belts 'pumped up' by high-
altitude nuclear explosions or powerful solar storms." It seems the
Pentagon is making plans for conducting nuclear warfare above the
clouds. But I digress.

Luckily a small group of scientists from Britain, New Zealand and
Finland (organized as the "British Antarctic Survey") caught wind of
the RBR plan and actually gave it some thought. They concluded that
RBR would "significantly alter the upper atmosphere, seriously
disrupting high frequency (HF) radio wave transmissions and GPS
navigation around the world." The world's commercial (and military)
transport systems are now almost completely dependent upon GPS
navigation, so disrupting the global GPS system would create economic
chaos, not to mention loss of life. Who knew?

A Plan to Change the Earth's Orbit

As pressure builds on the fossil corporations to quit contaminating
the atmosphere with CO2, plans for geo-engineering the planet grow
ever-more grandiose and desperate. There is now talk of moving the
Earth 1.5 million miles out of its orbit around the sun, to compensate
for doubling carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Ken Caldeira of
Stanford University has calculated that moving the Earth in this
fashion would require the energy of five thousand million million
hydrogen bombs (that's 5,000,000,000,000,000 hydrogen bombs). No doubt
the Pentagon is studying it with considerable interest.

The Biggest Geo-engineering Project: Carbon Sequestration

Now, the biggest earth-based geo-engineering project of all is in the
late stages of development by the coal and oil industries, and is
about to be "regulated" by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA). This is the plan that convinces me that the fossil
corporations have no intention of allowing the U.S. to make a rapid
transition to solar power. This Big Fossil plan is called CCS,
short for "carbon capture and sequestration" and it, too, closely
resembles dozens of previous unsuccessful attempts to figure out what
to do with radioactive waste.

Carbon sequestration is a fancy name for what used to be called the
"kitty litter solution" to radioactive waste: bury it in the ground
and hope it stays there. Carbon sequestration is a plan to capture
gaseous carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants (and perhaps from
other industrial operations as well), turn it into a liquid, and pump
it into the deep earth or perhaps into the ocean, where it will
remain for an unknown period of time. Professional optimists employed
by the fossil industries claim the unknown period of time is
"forever." But how can they be sure?

Saving the Coal Industry

The future of the coal industry, in particular, is at stake. Without
carbon sequestration, the coal industry will not survive. Just this
month the state of Kansas refused to license the construction of a new
coal-fired power plant simply because of its carbon dioxide
emissions. This is the first time a coal plant has been turned down
merely because of its contribution to global warming. The hand writing
is on the wall: Big Coal is doomed unless they can find some way to
demonstrate that "clean coal" is more than an advertising slogan. This
is what carbon sequestration geo-engineers are being paid to do.

Saving the Oil Industry (and the Automobile Industry)

But there's more at stake than just the coal industry. The oil
industry, too, is depending on "carbon sequestration" to convince the
public that continuing to burn fossil fuels is safe. Even the car
companies have recognized that their future depends upon convincing us
all that carbon sequestration will work -- and work forever.

We know this is really, really important to the fossil corporations
because some of the biggest names in global industry are underwriting
"geo-engineering" solutions for the carbon dioxide problem at some of
the most prestigious U.S. universities. The Center for Energy &
Environmental Studies at Princeton University is conducting geo-
engineering studies (1.4 Mbyte PDF) funded by BP (the felonious
oil corporation formerly known as British Petroleum) and by Ford
Motor, the troubled manufacturer of SUVs. Geo-engineering work at
Stanford University is being supported by ExxonMobil, by General
Electric, by Schlumberger (the oil-drilling services giant), and by

To convince the U.S. environmental community that geo-engineering
carbon dioxide is the only way to go, the Stanford geo-engineering
group has linked up with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).
Together, they are publishing clever propaganda masquerading as
science. For example, in a recent letter to California legislators
they say, "We only wish to address the science of CCS [carbon capture
and sequestration] here." So we are expecting a scientific argument.
Instead, the letter tries to persuade legislators to support carbon
sequestration using arguments that have nothing to do with science.

The letter is peppered with distinctly unscientific language like
"perfectly safe" to describe the fossil corporations' favorite geo-
engineering solution. "Perfectly safe" is not a scientific concept. It
is a political concept.

To be fair, deep in their letter NRDC and friends add a few caveats to
their "perfectly safe" claim. For example, they say, "Leakage is
conceivable but it is unlikely in well-selected sites, is generally
avoidable, predictable, can be detected and remedied promptly, and in
any case is extremely unlikely to be of a magnitude to endanger human
health and the environment if performed under adequate regulatory
oversight and according to best practices." [Emphasis in the

So carbon sequestration will be "perfectly safe" if it occurs
at "well-selected sites" and if performed under adequate
regulatory oversight and according to best practices."

Let's examine these caveats. Are these scientific concepts? Do they
even refer to anything in the real world?

Human History: Selecting Sites for Dangerous Projects

What experience do humans have siting dangerous facilities at only
"well-selected sites"? I am thinking of the atomic reactor in Japan
sited near an earthquake fault and recently shut down by serious
earthquake damage. I am thinking of the U.S. radioactive waste site
proposed for Yucca Mountain in Nevada where government and private
engineers felt the need to falsify data to make the site appear
acceptable. How do NRDC and Stanford propose to avoid a repeat of
these fiascos when it comes time to select dozens or hundreds (perhaps
thousands) of sites for pumping carbon dioxide into the ground?

Human history: Best practices with Dangerous Technologies

And that about "best practices"? Does this phrase take into account
actual human experience with power plant operators photographed
asleep in the control room of nuclear reactors? Or young men deep in
missile silos relieving their boredom by getting drunk or taking
drugs while standing ready to launch intercontinental ballistic
missiles armed with hydrogen warheads?

Will Every Nation Abide by the NRDC/Stanford Prescription?

After the U.S. begins injecting billions of tons of liquid carbon
dioxide into the earth, won't China, India and other countries do the
same? If they do, can they be counted on to choose only "well-selected
sites" and to follow only "best practices" for the next hundred years?
Who will oversee carbon sequestration in Nigeria or Uzbekistan?

How do NRDC and Stanford imagine that standards for site selection and
"best practices" will be enforced around the globe? Have NRDC and
Stanford published solutions to these problems? Or are they just
putting empty words on paper hoping to fool clueless legislators into
adopting untestable technical solutions that the fossil corporations
are paying them to promote?

But the most dubious part of the NRDC plan to geo-engineer carbon
sequestration is their claim that is will be "perfectly safe" if
performed with "adequate regulatory oversight." Can NRDC and their
friends at Stanford point to any instances of large-scale industrial
enterprises that currently have "adequate regulatory oversight?"

Everyone knows that regulators quickly get captured by the industries
they are supposed to regulate. There is a substantial body of social
science literature on this point. Regulators are poorly paid, but if
they look the other way at regulatory violations, they may find a
lucrative job awaiting them when they retire from government. Less
sinister but more pervasive is the simple fact that regulated
corporations spend a lot of time befriending regulators, dropping by
to say hello, asking about the kids, gaining their trust and
ultimately their allegiance. Are NRDC and Stanford prepared to deny
this indisputable history of regulatory collapse? Have they examined
the dismal record of the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer
Product Safety Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the
Securities and Exchange Commission, and the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency? Are they prepared to design and describe regulatory
institutions that do not suffer from these same fundamental human
flaws? Or are they just blowing smoke?

So let's examine these caveats just a bit more.

1. What actual experience to do humans have designing anything to be
kept out of the environment forever? Answer: None. Absolutely
none. In this context, then, what can "perfectly safe" possibly mean?

2. What human regulatory institutions can NRDC and friends point to
that have proven adequate? Let's see. The regulatory system for
preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons? Today, 40 years after
the inception of the non-proliferation treaty, Israel, India, North
Korea, Pakistan -- all have The Bomb despite heroic efforts to prevent
its spread. The only reason Iraq and Syria don't have a nuclear weapon
is because Israel bombed their nascent nuclear power plants to

What about the regulatory system for controlling the discard of
radioactive waste? Radioactive waste is loose at thousands of
locations around the planet. In hundreds (perhaps thousands) of
instances we do not even know where the stuff has been dumped. This
technology was developed by the smartest people in the world with
unlimited budgets -- yet at places like the gold-plated Los Alamos
Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico (now renamed the Los Alamos
National Laboratory), plutonium, americium-241, strontium-90 and other
supremely dangerous radioactive elements were buried in shallow pits,
or simply dumped into mountain canyons without any records kept of
their whereabouts. The kitty litter solution. And this was a federal
scientific laboratory under strict military surveillance and control
at the time. Can we expect the fossil corporations under the watchful
eye of EPA (wink, wink) to do better?

How about the regulatory system for curtailing the widespread
destruction of wildlife and human health from hormone-disrupting,
cancer-causing chlorinated chemicals? The arctic, which has no
industrial enterprises to speak of, is among the most heavily
contaminated places on earth because the chemical regulatory system
failed to consider how chemicals migrate once they are released into
the environment.

So where can we find real-world examples of this "adequate regulatory
oversight" that NRDC and Stanford say will be necessary to make carbon
sequestration "perfectly safe"?

Maintaining vigilance for hundreds or thousands of years?

Elsewhere in their letter, NRDC and the engineers from Stanford say
they believe carbon sequestration can be maintained for millions of
years, but they say, if something goes wrong, rapid response will be

Is this really true?

Again, let's return to the debates over radioactive waste from the
late 1970s. Back then scientists were a bit more candid: they admitted
they knew of no way to pass information reliably to future generations
describing the location of radioactive waste dumps. Given human
history and the evanescence of human institutions, they could not
imagine a way to reliably warn future generations about dangers buried
in the earth. At one point they considered writing a huge warning
across the face of the moon using graphic symbols because they had no
idea which human languages would survive thousands of years into the
future. Have NRDC and Stanford published their solution for this

Why should we assume that humans a hundred years from now -- let alone
500 or 5000 years from now -- will be able to monitor for carbon
dioxide leaks, locate them, and take rapid action to control them? The
prudent assumption would be that humans will NOT have those
capabilities. It seems to me it would be unethical to design our
technologies based on untested and untestable (and wildly optimistic)
assumptions about future humans and their social organizations. Who
gave us the right to make decisions now based on assumptions, which,
if they are wrong, could destroy the planet as a place suitable for
human habitation -- which is precisely what the carbon sequestration
researchers are intending to do.

With the future of the human species at stake, isn't a little humility
in order? Will these geniuses find themselves staring into the mirror
one day toward the end of their shameful careers muttering, "Who

But ordinary people who aren't subsidized by energy or automobile
corporations are asking the same sorts of common-sense questions they
asked 20 years ago when the same sorts of brainy university types were
telling us it was "perfectly safe" to bury radioactive waste in the

** What if these scientists and engineers turn out to be wrong?

** What if there's something important they haven't thought of?

** Are these people infallible or are they human? They can't be both.

** Isn't it unethical to claim that something will be "perfectly safe"
when as a scientist you know you can't be perfectly sure?

** When the fossil corporations impose their plan on us and begin
large-scale carbon sequestration, won't that become a powerful
incentive to reduce federal funding for conservation, renewables, and
solar power? Then won't we have all our eggs in one basket? And didn't
our grandmothers tell us that was a bad idea?

** After the fossil corporations impose carbon sequestration on us,
won't we be saddled with even more killer fly ash choking the air, and
even more toxic bottom ash threatening groundwater supplies? Won't we
have even more destruction from mountain-top-removal coal mining, plus
the enormous waste of water and land in the mid-western and western
coal states? "Clean" coal will still be one of the dirtiest and most
destructive forms of energy. And oil will still keep dragging us into
endless bloody resource wars because we will still need to funnel more
and more of the world's remaining petroleum into our astonishingly
wasteful and inefficient enterprises. Is this really the direction we
want to be going? Is this a plan we can explain to our children with
pride? Is this a plan that will give our children hope?

** Would carbon sequestration truly be reversible if we discovered far
in the future that it was a mistake? If not, who can claim that it is
ethical to proceed?

** If radioactive waste and carbon dioxide are so dangerous and so
hard to manage, how does it make sense to steer the nation and the
world onto a course that will guarantee continued production of these
lethal substances far into the future?

** With the survival of humans at stake, isn't this a classic and
urgent case for applying the precautionary principle?

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From: Vancouver (B.C., Canada) Sun, Oct. 20, 2007
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By Jonathan Spicer, Reuters

TORONTO -- More girls than boys are born in some Canadian communities
because airborne pollutants called dioxins can alter normal sex
ratios, even if the source of the pollution is many kilometres away,
researchers say.

Dioxin exposure has been shown elsewhere to lead to both higher cancer
rates and the birth of more females.

Researchers at the IntraAmericas Centre for Environment and Health say
their findings, released this month, confirm the phenomenon in Canada.

The study also reveals the health risks of living within 25 km of
sources of pollution -- a greater distance than previously thought,
they said. [The study appeared in two separate publications, available
here and here.]

Normally, 51 per cent of births are boys and 49 per cent are girls.
But the ratio was reversed -- with as few as 46 males born for every
54 females -- in Canadian cities and towns where parents were exposed
to pollutants from sources such as oil refineries, paper mills and
metal smelters, according to the study.

"If you find an inverted sex ratio, and want to know what causes it,
look for sources of dioxin," said James Argo, a medical geographer who
headed the study, which was published in a journal of the American
Chemical Society.

"In every one of those cities where those industries are found ...
there was a higher probability of female births to male births," Argo
said in an interview.

Using birth data and an inventory of pollution sources, the study also
concluded that early exposure to dioxins -- even at 25 km away from
the source -- increased the risk of cancer later in life in a group of
20,000 people surveyed during the 1990s.

Previous studies that linked dioxins with cancer and a gender
imbalance focused on smaller distances, usually about 5 km, Argo said.

Dioxins are toxic chemicals found in very small amounts in the air,
water, soil and some foods.

The large-scale burning of municipal and medical waste is the primary
source of dioxins in Canada, but they are also created by fuel and
wood burning, electrical power generation and in the production of
iron and steel.

Since more females were born in the 90 communities studied, more
breast, uterine, cervical and ovarian cancers were observed among them
than other forms of cancer, Argo said.

Copyright The Vancouver Sun 2007

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From: The New York Times Magazine (pg. 32), Oct. 21, 2007
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By Jascha Hoffman.

[Jascha Hoffman is on the staff of The New York Review of Books.]

Has the Clean Air Act done more to fight crime than any other policy
in American history? That is the claim of a new environmental theory
of criminal behavior.

In the early 1990s, a surge in the number of teenagers threatened a
crime wave of unprecedented proportions. But to the surprise of some
experts, crime fell steadily instead. Many explanations have been
offered in hindsight, including economic growth, the expansion of
police forces, the rise of prison populations and the end of the crack
epidemic. But no one knows exactly why crime declined so steeply.

The answer, according to Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst
College, lies in the cleanup of a toxic chemical that affected nearly
everyone in the United States for most of the last century. After
moving out of an old townhouse in Boston when her first child was born
in 2000, Reyes started looking into the effects of lead poisoning. She
learned that even low levels of lead can cause brain damage that makes
children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and
aggressive. She also discovered that the main source of lead in the
air and water had not been paint but rather leaded gasoline -- until
it was phased out in the 1970s and '80s by the Clean Air Act, which
took blood levels of lead for all Americans down to a fraction of what
they had been. "Putting the two together," she says, "it seemed that
this big change in people's exposure to lead might have led to some
big changes in behavior."

Reyes found that the rise and fall of lead-exposure rates seemed to
match the arc of violent crime, but with a 20-year lag -- just long
enough for children exposed to the highest levels of lead in 1973 to
reach their most violence-prone years in the early '90s, when crime
rates hit their peak.

Such a correlation does not prove that lead had any effect on crime
levels. But in an article published this month in the B.E. Journal of
Economic Analysis and Policy, Reyes uses small variations in the lead
content of gasoline from state to state to strengthen her argument. If
other possible sources of crime like beer consumption and unemployment
had remained constant, she estimates, the switch to unleaded gas alone
would have caused the rate of violent crime to fall by more than half
over the 1990s.

If lead poisoning is a factor in the development of criminal behavior,
then countries that didn't switch to unleaded fuel until the 1980s,
like Britain and Australia, should soon see a dip in crime as the last
lead-damaged children outgrow their most violent years. According to a
comparison of nine countries published this year by Rick Nevin in the
journal Environmental Research, crime rates around the world are just
starting to respond to the removal of lead from gasoline and paint.
"It really does sound like a bad science-fiction plot," says Nevin, a
senior adviser to the National Center for Healthy Housing. "The idea
that a society could have systematically poisoned its youngest
children with the same neurotoxins in two different ways over the same
century is almost impossible to believe."

The magnitude of these claims has been met with a fair amount of
skepticism. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, wonders how lead could
have had such a strong effect on violent crime while, according to
Reyes, it showed almost no effect on property crimes like theft. He
also doubts that the hypothesis could explain the plunge in the U.S.
murder rate from the 1930s through the 1950s. "I certainly think it's
a reasonable exercise," Miron says. "We just have to be appropriately
suspicious of how much you can actually show."

The theory will be put to the test as children grow up in Indonesia,
Venezuela and sub-Saharan Africa, where leaded gasoline has just
recently been phased out. Meanwhile, the list of countries that still
use lead in gas -- Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq, as well as much of
North Africa and Central Asia -- does not rule out a connection with

No matter how suggestive the economists' data, it takes a doctor to
show that some of the people most damaged by lead are out there
breaking the law. Herbert Needleman, the University of Pittsburgh
psychiatrist and pediatrician whose work helped persuade the
government to ban lead in the 1970s, recently studied a sample of
juvenile delinquents in Pittsburgh; the group had significantly more
lead in their bones than their peers. And lead may not be the only
source of damage. The National Children's Study will soon begin to
track more than 100,000 children to determine the effects of exposure
to common pesticides, among other chemicals.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Return to Table of Contents


From: The Ecologist, Sept. 6, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Pat Thomas

Roughly 2 1/2 million tonnes of municipal waste are incinerated in the
UK each year. More efficient filters make emissions look clearer, but
just because you don't see the pollution, doesn't mean it isn't there.
The same toxic chemical that were in out plastics, paper, textiles and
wood when they went into the fire are still there during and after
combustion. And their release into the air is still associated with a
range of human health problems including cancer, reproductive problems
and learning difficulties in children.

But the intense heat of incineration also helps create a whole range
of new compounds with a completely unknown potential for toxicity.
Indeed, the way that incineration changes the seen into the unseen and
the known into the unknown is one of its most dangerous consequences.


Modern incinerators have measures in place to control the emissions
they release into the atmosphere. These incinerators have to comply
with tough standards set by European and UK legislation, which are
designed to control acid emissions (using 'scrubbers'. Devices that
use a high-energy liquid spray to remove acid emissions from the air
stream), dust levels (using electrostatic precipitators, essentially
dust magnets in the incineration unit) and fine particles (using
textile filters).

Even so, a large incinerator produces the equivalent of 300 wheelie
bins of exhaust gases from its chimneys every second. These not only
pollute the local area, but are also carried on the prevailing winds
to neighbouring cities and towns. Human beings are exposed to them by
breathing contaminated air, by absorbing them through their skin and
by eating contaminated food, such as vegetables, eggs and milk.

Because of their acidic nature incinerator emissions such as nitrogen
oxides, sulphur dioxide and hydrogen chloride contribute to the
phenomenon of acid rain, which is destructive to forests and lakes and
the animals that inhabit them.

While a few hundred of the gases emitted by incinerators have been
identified (see table), the process of heating and releasing emissions
into the environment creates the possibility of thousands of new
chemical compounds. There are no formal air quality standards for many
of these and many have never been fully studied with regard to their
effects on human health.

There is no technology that can remove all the pollutants and there
are too many uncertainties and variables to say whether anything that
gets released into the air is categorically 'safe'. While the health
effects of mixtures of chemicals are largely unknown, the effects of
single emissions such as dioxins and heavy metals, and also furans,
PCBs, PAHs, numerous VOCs, acid gases and particulates, is better

These substances are persistent -- they remain in the environment
indefinitely -- and bioaccumulative, meaning that even small amounts
build up in the body tissues over time. Some cause cancer, some
trigger respiratory problems such as asthma and some are mutagenic -
capable of causing genetic damage.

All these substances are legally released into the air. Many are not
or cannot be measure or monitored at all and the Environment Agency
(EA) has admitted that current emissions standards are based on what
is technically achievable rather than what is safe for human health.

Microscopic particles

Newer incinerators appear to burn 'clean'. But while newer filters may
keep larger particles from being discharged into the atmosphere, they
do little to prevent the release of microscopic particles measuring
just 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). these particles are released
into the atmosphere when oil and solvent-based mixtures are burnt in
incinerators, as well as by industrial processes such as smelting and
metal processing. In the last decade or so the amount of PM2.5 in our
atmosphere has risen astronomically.

The incineration process liberates a range of heavy metals such as
lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and cadmium from otherwise stable
matrices such as plastics into the air. Because they are released as
microscopic particles, these metals have the potential to penetrate
deep into the lungs where they enter the bloodstream and are deposited
in organs and tissues throughout the body.

At the high temperature used in incineration, mercury is particularly
problematic since it can be turned into a gas that evades the most
commonly used filters. Incineration of municipal waste is a major
source of mercury in the environment. Even if filters such as
activated carbon are used to absorb mercury before it can be released,
the question of what happens to the mercury that is captured by the
filtration process and how often the filter is changed remains.


Around 30 per cent of what is incinerated ends up as bottom ash, which
is the ash and non-combustible material left over, and is disposed of
in landfill sites. A further five per cent of incinerated waste ends
up as fly ash.

Fly ash has a fine consistency and has to be sealed into containers
and disposed of as hazardous waste in special landfill sites that are
licensed to accept toxic rubbish. Bottom ash has a more gravel-like
consistency and is 'recycled' by processing it into a suitable
aggregate type material for use in the construction industry. In the
EU bottom ash is considered a toxic residue. However, after 'ageing'
(that is washing it, treating it to reduce its acidity and allowing it
to stand for a period of one to three months), it is considered
suitable for some construction purposes.

In addition to fly and bottom ash, the lime and carbon used to clean
the filters are also considered toxic waste. The cleaning and
scrubbing substances are highly contaminated with all the same
chemicals as fly ash and need to be disposed of carefully.

The ash and cleaning substances generated by incinerators contain
toxic chemicals. How these are eventually distributed into the
environment and how they affect human health is less well studied than
the effects of gases and microscopic particles.

Much depends on where the ash ends up. Incinerators produce about a
million tonnes of contaminated ash each year and this ash is difficult
to dispose of. 'Creative' attempts at disposal have included spreading
ash on allotments and footpaths, as was the case in the late 1990s
when decades of this 'recycling' of mixed fly ash and bottom ash from
the Byker incinerator in Newcastle resulted in the worst dioxin
contamination ever seen in a local area. Ash samples were found to
contain 1,950 nanograms of carcinogenic dioxins, massively above the
five nanograms they would have expected to find in a polluted area.

These days bottom ash cannot be mixed with much more toxic fly ash.
However, this has occurred in the past, as was the case with waste
from London's Edmonton incinerators, and used to build roads and car
parks. Selling off toxic ash means incinerator operators can avoid
expensive disposal costs and generate income. While the ash may be
mixed with concrete, erosion takes its toll and some toxins are
eventually returned to the environment.

The health fallout

Epidemiological and environmental studios show that certain types of
diseases and health problems can and do occur with greater frequency
in those who live close to incinerators. Operators often dismiss these
health problems as coincidence. Since many incinerators are sited in
impoverished areas where the residents are already at a higher risk of
every type of illness, it could equally be argued that the strategic
citing of incinerators in generally neglected areas is designed to
hide human health effects.

Dioxins are arguably the best studied of all incinerator emissions,
while operators argue that levels emitted from incinerators are small,
this needs to be weighed against several important factors, not least
of which is the unacceptably high background levels of dioxin already
in the environment. Since many dioxins are known hormone disrupters,
and since hormone levels are tightly controlled in the body, even
small amounts -- as little as one part per trillion in the blood --
may translate into substantial hormone disruption, a risk factor for
cancer, growth disruption and immune system dysfunction.

Dioxins also readily enter the food chain when they are deposited on
grass and crops. It is estimated that, in one day, a cow grazing near
an incinerator could put as much dioxin into its body as a human being
would get if he or she breathed the air next to the cow for 14 years.
Likewise, one litre of contaminated milk would deliver as much dioxin
to a human being as he or she would get from breathing the air next to
the cow for eight months.

Even small daily emissions of dioxins can, over time, build up in the
environment and in the bodies of exposed populations, and while
European regulators are more laissez faire, the US EPA says there are
no safe levels of dioxins.

But dioxins are only one part of the complicated health equation
related to incineration. According to Dr Dick van Steenis, a retired
GP and anti-incineration campaigner whose research into the toxic
effect of incineration fallouts has helped stop four incinerators from
being built in the UK, the total cost of this virtually unregulated
industrial air pollution is nearly 34 billion pounds per annum. That
figure takes into account known emissions and van Steenis notes, there
will be cumulative impacts in the body and synergistic effects, for
example cadmium and lead in the body will multiply the effects of
mercury by 50 times which will facilitate the development of ADHD and

Once in the lungs, PM2.5s are capable of causing serious health
problems ranging from asthma, allergies, type 2 diabetes, immune
system problems and multiple sclerosis. US data links PM2.5s to
greatly increased rates of heart disease.

Incinerators emission are also linked with other diseases such as:


Researchers have found significant clusters of cancer, which is
thought to be due to exposure to dioxins. In residents living close to
an incinerator in France, for instance, there was 44 per cent increase
in soft tissue sarcoma and 27 per cent increase in non- Hodgkin's
lymphoma. In Italy and the UK, studies show an increased incidence of
cancer of the larynx.

UK data on people living near municipal waste incinerators and
hospital waste incinerators show double the risk of dying from
childhood cancer. And one of the largest ever studies in the UK,
involving 14 million people living within 7.5 kilometres of
incinerators, found a 37 per cent increased risk of death from liver

Hormone disruption

In residents living near an incinerators in Scotland the incidence of
twins/multiple pregnancies is double the national average and in
residents living near an incinerator in Belgium it is nearly three
times as great.

It's not only reproductive hormones that are affected. Lower levels of
thyroid hormone have been detected in children living near a German

Birth defects

A report released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2005
examined the rate of birth defects in children living near
incinerators over an eight-year period. Compared to the national
average for England, 11/1000 children living downwind of incinerators,
cement works, oil refineries, power stations and steelworks were
significantly likely to be born with birth defects. In rural mid-
Devon -- where the local incinerator was the most significant source
of pollution, the birth defect rates are 62/1000, compared to Bexley
in London where, at the time of the survey, traffic, rather than the
local incinerator, was the major source of pollution and the rate was
23/1000. The defects are the likely result of maternal exposure to
particulates measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter.

The reports notes, in particular, that Bexley's birth defects rates
are likely to increase following the decision to allow the White Rose
incinerators to burn unlimited amounts of radioactive waste. Such as
that generated by hospitals.

The appearance of birth defects would suggest that the toxins released
from incinerators can cause DNA damage. This is worrying enough. But
newer evidence in the field of 'epigenetics' suggests that certain
defects can be programmed into the body without making obvious damage
to the DNA and that these defects are heritable -- passed on down the

Commonly defined as the study of heritable changes in gene function
that occur without a change in the DNA sequence, epigenetics is
reshaping the way scientists look at traditional genetics and their
real world influence on health and disease.

The ONS data is consistent with a previous study linking industrial
PM2.5 emissions with birth defects which was carried out at McMaster
University, Canada in 2004. The McMaster study, although based on
animal data, found that compared to mice breathing clean, filtered
air, those exposed to ambient air near highways and steel mills
containing PM2.5 developed mutations that were passed down through the
generations, even though they showed no detectable signs of DNA

What goes into the environment?

The table below does not represent the entire scope of possible health
effects. Nor does it represent the full range of identified chemicals
emitted by incinerators, which number up to 250 individual substances.
The effects of mixtures of chemicals, for instance, are largely
unknown. There may be more generalised problems that never get studied
or reported such as hospital admission or GP visits for vague
complaints such as 'respiratory distress'. In addition, these effects
are human effects and do not take into account damage to the ecosystem
due to acid emissions.

Substance: Health Effects

Antimony: A number of effects, including respiratory

Arsenic: Class 1 carcinogen

Cadmium: Class 1 carcinogen

Carbon Monoxide: Reduced oxygen in the blood

Chromium III

Chromium VI: Type VI is a Class 1 carcinogen

Cobalt: Class 2b carcinogen

Dioxins: Class 1 carcinogen (as TCDD). Affects development and
reproduction. Highly toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative. Can
contaminate food

Hydrogen Chloride: Acid, irritant to tissue including respiratory

Hydrogen Fluoride: Irritant, affects bone formation

Lead: Class 2b carcinogen

Manganese: Neurological effects

Mercury: Neurological effects. Damages kidneys

Nickel: Class 1 carcinogen (as compounds of nickel)

Nitrogen Oxides: Respiratory effects (and is a precursor of ozone,
which also contributes to respiratory problems)

PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) Some are carcinogens

Particulates/PM10s: Respiratory effects; no known safe threshold

PCBs: Properties similar to dioxins

Sulphur Oxides: Respiratory effects

Thallium: May affects several organs and nervous system

Vanadium: Respiratory effects

Return to Table of Contents


From: IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Jan. 1, 2003
[Printer-friendly version]


By Jeff Howard

All environmental problems are nasty surprises. Each runs counter to
Western society's expectation of endless progress through mastery of
nature.[1] But the term seems especially appropriate for problems

** catch most scientists, technologists, regulatory officials, the
mass media, and the general public off-guard;

** are already quite extensive by the time they are recognized;

** stem from deeply entrenched technological processes or practices;

** present a potentially large-scale, long-term threat to human or
ecological health.

Such problems are surprises because they seem to drop out of
the blue -- even if it is soon clear that warning signs were long
missed, ignored, or misinterpreted -- and reveal major errors in
scientific thinking and public policy. They are nasty because
they represent potentially enormous hazards and addressing them
entails substantial political challenges. This combination of
characteristics makes these problems a useful window into the ongoing
controversy over the Precautionary Principle and its place in the
environmental policy landscape.


Endocrine disruption is a classic example of nasty surprise, and
indeed it was in this context that the term "nasty surprise" may first
have been applied to environmental issues.[2, pp. 241-242]

Arguably the most significant development in the ecological and
environmental health sciences in the past two decades has been
recognition that synthetic industrial chemicals in the environment --
including DDT, chlorinated dioxins, numerous polychlorinated
biphenyls, various pesticides, and obscure components of plastics --
can interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) systems of animals,
including humans.[3] Efforts are under way to determine whether
exposure to these contaminants is linked to increases in the incidence
of breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, undescended
testicles, abnormalities of the penis, reduced sperm count, and
learning and behavioral abnormalities as well as accelerated onset of
breast development.[4]

Endocrine disruption is a surprise. Despite what are now seen
as ominous warnings over decades, it came into scientific focus quite
rapidly in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely through a series of
accidental discoveries. Contrary to the doctrine that toxicological
risk diminishes with dose, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are
specifically (perhaps uniquely) active at extremely low doses and
their action often hinges not on dose but on exposure during key
moments in an organism's development. And contrary to the assumption
that cancer is the most sensitive health endpoint, this research is
demonstrating that for some chemicals it is reproductive and
developmental alteration.[2-5, 6, ch. 3]

Endocrine disruption is nasty. To many scientists, government
officials, and environmental advocates, it implies a potentially
enormous multigenerational threat to human and ecological health, a
threat exacerbated by the global ubiquity of some of the pollutants in
question and by their ability to remain biologically active for
generations to come.[2-7] Bewilderingly complex methodological
obstacles impede scientific investigation into the causes and
consequences of endocrine disruption and hence progress toward a
broadly accepted political response.[3,7] Since U.S.-style pollution
policy is based on the very toxicological assumptions that endocrine
disruption undermines, mounting evidence suggests the current
regulatory regime is an inadequate path to long-term
sustainability.[3, ch. 5, 5-7] And regulating a diverse and growing
list of endocrine disrupting chemicals could have significant economic

Over the past half-century, the environmental policy landscape has
been littered with similar surprises, including:

** 1960s and 1970s -- Acid precipitation due to long-range atmospheric
transport of sulfur dioxide poses a widespread threat to aquatic
ecosystems and forests;

** 1960s and 1970s Large-scale industrial use of lead (especially in
gasoline) has vastly elevated tissue concentrations of the neurotoxin
in the general human population;

** 1980s -- The stratospheric ozone layer is being depleted by
chlorofluorocarbons and other common organochlorine compounds;

** 1980s -- Tin compounds widely applied to boat hulls can severely
damage the growth and reproduction of marine organisms;

** Recent decades -- Profound disturbances in a wide variety of
terrestrial and marine organisms, including periodic mass mortalities
of dolphins and seals and a decline in interregional bird migrations;

** Recent decades -- Plant and animal species across the globe are
dying off far more rapidly than the natural rate of extinction.


The Precautionary Principle (PP) is increasingly invoked in
international environmental protocols and agreements and in national
and local environmental disputes. It holds that when there is
significant evidence a new or existing technology poses a substantial
environmental hazard, lack of detailed scientific understanding should
not be used as a justification for postponing measures to contain the
threat.[8] Nasty environmental surprises appear to have played a
significant role in motivating development of the PP and in shaping
efforts to implement it.[8, 9] And they often have been prominent in
appeals for precautionary action, as when endocrine disruption and
ozone depletion have been cited in articulating a rationale for a
precautionary phase-out of major industrial uses of chlorine.[6]

In three ways, environmental nasty surprises illuminate the conflict
between precautionary and conventional modes of environmental decision
making. They:

1. Dramatically remind us that our understanding of complex natural
systems and the complex interaction of technologies with those systems
remains quite sketchy.

Unintended, unexpected, side effects are inevitable features of all
large technological systems. And when these systems interact with the
larger, even more complex natural systems (e.g., ecological,
atmospheric) in which they are embedded, they spin off additional
"emergent characteristics" at the regional and global levels. The
basic mechanisms of change in techno-ecological systems have been
poorly studied, constituting "virtually a black hole of knowledge and
understanding."[10, p. 360, 11] Nasty surprises are emergent
characteristics that remind us contemporary technological systems
constitute "a great global experiment -- with humanity and all life on
Earth as the unwitting subjects."[2, p. 240]

In the case of endocrine disruption, this "experiment" involves
essentially random encounters between industrial chemicals and the
hormonal systems of humans and other species. Only a few of the 87,000
synthetic chemicals in commerce and the unknown thousands of other
industrial chemicals produced as byproducts and degradation products
have so far been screened for endocrine-disrupting properties.
Moreover, hormonal systems of animals are staggeringly complex,
involving a large and poorly understood diversity of mechanisms and
hormone-receptor activities and diversity between species.[7] The
open-endedness of this "experiment" is further compounded by the
complexity of ecological systems that can be altered by chemical
disruption of' reproduction and development.[2]

Conventional design of chemicals, automobiles, and countless other
technologies have proceeded largely without regard to humanity's
underlying ignorance of natural and techno-ecological complexity; and
U.S.-style environmental regulation has relied on the assumption that
"sound science" has dispelled or ultimately will dispel such ignorance
sufficiently to allow society to achieve sustainability. Both
conventional design and conventional regulation are examples of what
Funtowicz and Ravetz call "ignorance-of-ignorance, a most dangerous
state for [humanity]."[12, p. 1884] By contrast, PP proponents have
argued that a "precautionary science"-based approach must account for
the reality of substantial ignorance.[7, 8, ch. 61, 9, pp. 169-71, 13]

2. Highlight the inadequacy and politics of risk assessment.

Many nasty surprises stem from activities that predate the
institutionalization of formal environmental risk assessment as the
back-bone of the U.S. regulatory system in the early 1980s. But nasty
surprises nonetheless reflect poorly on present risk-based policies.

While limitations of risk assessment have long been discussed by
regulators and academics, risk assessment's inadequacy as a bulwark
against large-scale, long-term ecological dysfunction and subtle but
profound human health impacts has received little attention. Risk
assessment is a poor defense against nasty surprise because it
disregards much of the techno-environmental complexity from which
surprises emerge.[6,9] Consequently, "The very considerable amount of
scientific work which has gone into the modeling of environmental risk
systems over the past few decades cannot... be taken as reassurance
that even the main dimensions of environmental harm from human
activities have been comprehended."[13, p. 113]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response to endocrine
disruption illustrates the dilemma. The agency is pinning its hopes on
a program to identify hormonally active chemicals and characterize the
risk each poses. Although yielding valuable information, this program
is effectively swamped by the complex diversity of chemicals, species,
and endocrine mechanisms.[7]

Proponents of precaution argue that the inadequacies of the risk-
based regulatory paradigm stem from its tacit politics -- its naive
optimism about the ability of science to plumb the depths of
environmental complexity; its ability to conceal ignorance; its
reductionistic conception of hazard; its technocratic conception of
power; its disregard for the availability of less-hazardous
technologies; its willingness to sanction damage to the environment in
the interest of economic freedom. They call for regulation whose
politics is more transparent, more democratic, more environmentally
cautious, more scientifically humble. They call for broader
participation in environmental decision making and urge that
evaluation of a technology include consideration of its social
justification, the distribution of its social benefits, and the
availability of less hazardous alternatives.[6-9, 13-14]

3. Lead us to expect additional nasty surprises.

The enormous pace and scale of human-induced change in global systems
that are themselves enormously complex means that we are "more and
more likely to engender problems that we are less and less likely to
anticipate."[15, p. 37] Viewing the rapid decline in global
biodiversity, biologist Myers concludes: "In the midst of much
scientific uncertainty about our world -- a world on which we are
imposing multitudes of simultaneous new insults -- we can be all but
certain that there are environmental processes at work, or waiting in
the wings, with the capacity to generate significant problems and to
take us by ostensible surprise."[10, p. 358] Colborn and colleagues,
considering the emergence of ozone depletion and endocrine disruption,
concur. "If anything is certain," they write, "it is that we will be
blindsided again" probably by "something never even considered."[2, p.
242]. How often will nasty surprises emerge? How long will it take us
to recognize and address them? How much damage will they do? Is the
worst behind us, or ahead of us? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A
precautionary framework for environmental decision making would
respond to the urgency of such questions by attempting to shape
technologies in ways calculated to make future nasty surprises less
frequent and less severe.

The risk-based regulatory approach, with its disregard for the
systemic character of nasty surprise and its technocratic mode of
responding to new surprises, does not offer a viable approach to
dealing with nasty surprises. As the European Environment Agency
concludes in its recent report on precaution, the scientific hubris
built into western society's technological decision making has made
society vulnerable to technological blunders that undermine the
prospect of sustainability.[9]


[1] D. Sarewitz, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the
Politics of Progress. Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univ., 1996.

[2] T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski. and J. Peterson Myers, Our Stolen
Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility: Intelligence, and Survival?
-- A Scientific Detective Story. New York, NY: Dutton, 1996.

[3] S. Krimsky, Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origins of
the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
Univ. Press, 2000.

[4] G.M. Solomon and T. Schettler, "Endocrine disruption and potential
human health implications," Canadian Med. Assoc. J., vol. 163, no. 11,
pp. 1471-1476, 2000.

[5] P.L. deFur, "Public policy recommendations to address endocrine
disrupting chemicals," Biotechnology International, vol. 2, pp.
230-234, 1999.

[6] J. Thornton, Pandora's Poison: Organochlorines and Health.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[7] J. Thornton, "Chemicals policy and the precautionary principle:
The case of endocrine disruption," in Science and the Precautionary
Principle, J. Tickner, Ed. Washington, DC: Island, to be published.

[8] C. Raffensperger and J. Tickner, Eds. Protecting Public Health and
the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington,
DC: Island, 1999.

[9] Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle
1896-2000. European Environment Agency: Copenhagen, 2001.

[10] N. Myers, "Environmental unknowns," Science, vol. 269, pp.
358-360, July 21, 1995.

[11] N. Myers, 'Two key challenges for biodiversity: Discontinuities
and synergisms," Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 5, pp.

[12] S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, "Uncertainty, complexity and
post-normal science," Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, vol. 13,
no. 12, pp. 1881-1885, 1994.

[13] B. Wynne, "Uncertainty and environmental learning: Reconceiving
science and policy in the preventive paradigm," Global Environmental
Change, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 111-127, 1992.

[14] M. O'Brien, Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative
to Risk Assessment. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[15] C. Bright, "Anticipating environmental 'surprise'," in State of
the World 2000: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a
Sustainable Society, L. Brown et al., Eds. New York, NY: Norton, 2000,
pp. 22-38.

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