Silent Spring's effects on the chemical industry

Since Silent Spring

05 May 2009 16:10  [Source: ICB]

The rise of green consciousness really kicked off during the 1960s in the US. Now it is a global force with which the industry has gradually learned to cooperate

David Ord/London

WHILE THERE may be some mileage in claiming that the green movement has its earliest origins at least as far back as the 1830s, environmental activism as we know it today found its trigger in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Carson's 1962 best-seller drew attention to the damage to the environment she believed was being caused by pesticides. Documenting the effect of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) on wildlife, particularly birds, Carson also attacked the way in which the claims made by the chemical industry were accepted uncritically by public officials.

The chemical sector's reaction to the book was explosive, with the industry attempting to savage Carson's scientific credentials and threatening lawsuits. Almost fifty years later, there is still much criticism of the book, mainly to do with the 1972 US ban on DDT. Opponents point to the pesticide's effectiveness in killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and claim that the campaign Carson inspired led to needless deaths.

Nonetheless, the book kick-started the first wave of green consciousness, in the 1960s and 1970s. The period was characterized by the rise of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Increased scientific and public understanding about the adverse impact on human health and ecosystems caused by toxic chemicals led to pressure on governments to introduce regulation. This period saw the establishment of environment ministries and protection agencies. 1972 saw the first international conference on the environment convened by the United Nations in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the 1980s, community-based organizations sprang up in many areas, concerned by the often inadequate enforcement of the first generation of environmental laws. As well as pressure on toxic products, trade unions and workers expressed fears over workplace safety.

In 1984, they believed their fears were confirmed, at Union Carbide's plant at Bhopal. A leak of methyl isocyanate led to an estimated 20,000 casualties. Although Bhopal was the most destructive and visible of all chemical industry incidents, there were others, including Seveso, Italy, and Love Canal, New York, in the US.

The 1990s saw a switch in chemical safety thinking and regulation from local or national, to international scope. The Basel Convention, designed to monitor and control movement of hazardous waste across international boundaries, came into force in 1992. The Rotterdam Convention, adopted in 1998, established a list of chemicals banned or stringently restricted in at least two regions. The regulation can prevent those chemicals being exported to developing countries.

In 2001, the European Commission stimulated debate within the EU with the report Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy. The result was a proposal to replace the existing chemical control legislation, which dated to the 1970s. Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) was the result.

The period before Reach, which came into force in 2007, saw acrimonious debate between the chemical sector and environmental campaigners, with the industry claiming unworkably high implementation costs, issues with confidentiality and, harking back to the Silent Spring era, flawed science. Environmentalist group Greenpeace was moved to issue a report entitled Toxic Lobby - How the Chemicals Industry Tried to Kill Reach.

So, in the fifty years since Rachel Carson took on the chemical sector, has anything rally changed? Based in Brussels, Nadia Haiama is Greenpeace's EU policy director for chemical. "There has been some progress in that both sides are more open and believe that we can discuss things and find compromises." she says.

Haiama believes that the key factor in building a level of mutual trust has been transparency. "We needed to be able to see the data - to see that the chemicals being produced were safe."

"The whole issue with Rachel Carson and the environmental movement of the '70s was that the burden was on public authorities, society and government to prove a chemical was not safe before they were able to act. That has been the game for the past decades."

"What we really want is to make sure that the chemical industry is walking the talk. They're saying that chemicals are safe, so show us the data. Not only us, but make it public."

"That's one of the things that have changed with Reach. For the first time, the sector will finally have to prove that all those thousands of chemicals we've been using for half a century are safe. And we've been getting a lot of voluntary commitment from those companies to eliminate hazardous chemicals."

Dawn Rittenhouse, US chemical giant DuPont's director of sustainable development, agrees that dialogue with the green movement has improved.

"We've definitely seen a change over the last two decades in how we work with the NGO community, she says. "I think if you go back to the '80s, it was really an "us versus them" attitude." Rittenhouse points to change on both sides during the 1990s.

"NGOs started to realize they need to be working with companies to help them make the transition, and companies recognized that the NGO community brought very valuable thinking into the discussion. At the start, you had very few NGOs or companies willing to do that."

DuPont is a member of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), along with Dow Chemical and major companies from other sectors, including Rio Tinto, Shell, Ford Motor, General Motors, Xerox and Siemens.

USCAP's consensus report, A Blueprint for Legislative Action, calls for climate-change legislation at a US national level. USCAP states its case in terms that show how far environmental thinking has come. USCAP says "In our view, the climate-change challenge will create more economic opportunities than risks for the US economy."

When it comes to existing European legislation, DuPont is "absolutely committed" to compliance with Reach, says Rittenhouse. "We're working with our suppliers and customers to make sure that we're putting in place everything that needs to be done."

Rittenhouse acknowledges that there will be some commercial impact on the business, but also sees the benefits. "It will cost money - there is no question about that," she says, "but the information that comes out of it will allow us to make better decisions about what products should and shouldn't be used. I think that's ultimately the goal of Reach."

Greenpeace's Haiama raises the most recent area for concern - nanomaterials. "Many are quite new, but some have been used for a few years," she says. "No-one knows how dangerous they are. There is no specific regulation about it."

"Reach may not cover it because of the tonnage threshold. These chemicals are being used in highly sensitive products, like cosmetics, without any data and without even the appropriate tests."

DuPont's Rittenhouse is aware of the issue. "We believe there's a lot of opportunity for nanotechnology, but we're also aware that there could be some downside - concerns about health or environmental impact."

To answer, or at least to ask, the right questions about nanotechnology, DuPont has joined forces with the Environmental Defense Fund, (EDF), the US-based environmental advocacy group. EDF's founders were instrumental in working towards the nationwide DDT ban in 1972.

While environmental groups and the chemical sector may still have an uneasy relationship, there does seem to have been genuine progress, even if it's taken four decades to achieve it. The ill-temper and litigation of the 1960s appears to be changing to a pragmatic cooperation that would have been unthinkable to the CEOs and environmental campaigners of the Silent Spring era.

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