By Joel Bleifuss
The pesticide DDT is one of a range of widely used man-made toxins that continue to take an incalculable toll on human health. As Frances Cerra Whittelsey notes in this issue's cover story on DDT contamination of green tea, we cannot escape exposure to chlorinated compounds since they persist for years in the environment. But we can curtail their use and prevent further harm from being done.
Chlorinated compounds, including DDT (and 33 other organochlorine pesticides), PCBs and dioxin, mimic the function of natural hormones and wreak havoc with the network of glands, tissues and cells known as the endocrine system. These hormone mimickers insinuate themselves into cells in the same way a hormone would, and thus interfere with the biological switches that regulate growth, development and behavior. As Theo Colborn, a scientist at the World Wildlife Fund wrote in a 1993 report published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: "It is now suspected that increases in the incidence of numerous pathologies in men and women may be related to exposure to pesticides and other endocrine disrupting chemicals."
The research of Colborn and her colleagues raised public awareness and set the stage for current international efforts to ban endocrine-disrupting chemicals. For the past two years, representatives from 121 countries have been negotiating a treaty under the auspices of the U.N. Environment Program that would ban the use of 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including 8 pesticides (among which is DDT), two industrial chemicals (hexachlorobenzene and PCBs) and two industrial byproducts (dioxin and furans).
While the Clinton administration has voiced public support for the POPs treaty and banning "the dirty dozen," its negotiating stance indicates more concern for protecting chemical corporations than the natural environment.
During the negotiations, the administration has balked at the use of the word "elimination" in the treaty section on industrial toxic by-products like dioxin unless it is qualified by the phrase "where technically and economically feasible." If the treaty called for absolute elimination, the United States would be required to implement pollution prevention programs like those in Europe to curtail the creation of dioxin here.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency admits that a major source of dioxin is the open burning of PVC plastic. The obvious way to stop the creation of such dioxin is to stop using PVC, and switch to a safer plastic. But the administration is reluctant to accept "materials substitution" provisions in the treaty, because that would require a change in U.S. environmental law and cost the chemical corporations money.
U.S. negotiators also want to restrict references of the "precautionary principle" to the POP treaty preamble, keeping it out of the section that addresses the evaluation of new chemicals. In 1998, an international gathering of environmental scientists, activists and government officials defined the precautionary principle this way: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof."
For its part the administration supports the industry-preferred practice of counting the bodies and then calculating the danger, otherwise known as "scientific risk assessment."
Finally, a U.S. State Department communiqué to the European Union, which was leaked to Greenpeace, indicates that the United States is extremely reluctant to accept treaty provisions that would require financial assistance from the countries and corporations that originally created and/or marketed the POPs. Such funds could help the developing world make the transition to safer alternatives, such as malaria control mechanisms that could replace DDT. Without such financial support, many developing countries will refuse to go along with the treaty.
Joel Bleifuss is the editor of In These Times.