Sustainability and the Chlorine Industry: A Report on Dialogue with a Case Study

[1] Under the leadership of Dr. James Nash, former Executive Director of the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., and at the request of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, a select number of ethicists from universities and theological schools across the country were invited to participate in an open-ended dialogue. The idea was to bring together ethicists with a background in environmental ethics and chlorine industry representatives to discuss environmental issues peculiar to the products of chlorine chemistry. The authors of this piece have been privileged to be among the corps of participating ethicists.

[2] In extending this invitation the industry representatives expressed the need for ethical reflection. They realize that the problems they face in assessing the impact of their industry activities on the environment are not capable of resolution simply by scientific and economic determinations. Moral judgments are also needed on what is socially and ecologically justifiable. The purpose for the dialogue, then, was defined as an exploration of the principles and/or moral meanings of environmental sustainability as they apply to the chlorine industry. The group has taken the name, “The Ethics and Sustainability Dialogue Group.” The dialogue has met twice a year since its first meeting on November 5-6, 1998 and continues to plan future meetings as of this writing.

[3] A number of agreements were entered into from the start. The ethicists involved have received no honoraria; only expenses are covered. It was clear to all that there were no preordained outcomes and that the presence of the ethicists in this dialogue should not be construed as sanctioning the policies and practices of the chlorine industry or the views of its representatives. Honest exchange, careful listening, and mutual learning have been the order of the day. Participants have committed to confidentiality in the sense that, while the existence and nature of the dialogue can be shared, individuals would not be quoted or their positions characterized. While the case study that follows has emerged by mutual consent, and other publications may yet be produced with group approval, the goal of the dialogue per se has not been publication. The strictures of unpaid participation in an atmosphere of confidentiality, unfettered by the constraints that publication goals might entail, help to insure that there will be maximum candor and that the demands of the issues themselves would set the agenda.

[4] While each of the ethicists would have his or her own personal account of the experience thus far, most would doubtless say that this dialogue is a special kind of opportunity. It is a chance to exercise one’s ethical theory and test one’s basic assumptions in the context of a detailed engagement with scientific and industry realities and the claims and counterclaims involved, and to do so face to face with those whose lives are invested in the enterprise under review. For many of us in academic settings this is not an everyday occurrence. For those of us who do faith-based ethics – the overwhelming majority of the ethicists participating – it is also not an everyday occurrence to engage in a business-related conversation in which one’s theological perspective is welcomed.

[5] For the representatives of the chlorine industry this is a special experience as well. They are letting outsiders into their world who ostensibly speak a different language and who may even think about the issues of environmentalism and chlorine products in an entirely different mode of thought. Certainly one can say that at the outset the vantage points of the participants are likely to be different in significant ways even if all bring a genuine sense of environmental responsibility to the table. This then gives the industry folk the opportunity to test their assumptions, the conclusions of their research, and their operating principles in a new and potentially more “global” forum once removed from the workplace pressures of immediate production decisions.

[6] Given certain differences in language and perspective, the first step in this dialogue is to find one another in a way that makes intelligible discourse possible. The commitment to principles of authentic dialogue helps make this happen. Dialogue is not debate, an effort to win the argument. It is not negotiation. It is not consensus building, though consensus may sometimes emerge. Dialogue requires that parties express their views honestly and clearly without compromise. It requires that parties listen to the views of their dialogue partners with such keen attention that they are finally able to understand their partners’ views as clearly as they understand their own. Thus, recognition of the equality of all participants is crucial if the sort of mutual respect required is to be sustained. Dialogue is a path of discovery. We learn more about the facts, complexities, and ambiguities of the issues. We learn to appreciate one another’s views even when we challenge or disagree. We can come to know each other as conscientious individuals with real hopes and fears common to our humanity and thereby we head off the temptation of indulging in damaging caricature. We often find that there is at least some common ground on which to stand and sometimes ways to resolve differences. In dialogue we are not committed to compromise, but we are open to change in the light of new information and insight.

[7] Chlorine chemistry has produced a ubiquitous empire, as the case study that follows indicates. Its products are everywhere. To understand better this vast enterprise scientists were brought into a number of the sessions to help us understand various aspects of the industry in relation to its environmental impact. This information was very important to those of us on a steep learning curve. However, as soon as we felt we had enough grasp on the realities of chlorine products in our world, their risks and benefits, we were eager to engage one another directly, the ethicists contributing their own brand of expertise in dialogue with the insights and concerns of the industry representatives.

[8] For all its values a dialogue of this sort has its limits too. The participants from the world of ethics and the industry alike are self-selecting and may be more open to this kind of engagement than is the norm in the conflictual relationships that often prevail between environmental advocates and industry leaders. If so, how can one reasonably expect the values and insights that have emerged in the dialogue to have much impact beyond its influence on those participating? We cannot answer that question with certainty. We cannot be so naïve as to think that dialogue will replace the need for political and legal solutions for environmental threats. However, we can say that talking things through on the basis of mutual respect is morally significant in itself – an expression of just process — and crucial to the kind of moral deliberation needed for so many complicated and uncertain issues.

[9] The dialogue reflected a number of perspectives along a continuum ranging from the phase-out of chlorine products to their continued production with environmental safeguards. The former perspective is that of Greenpeace, the latter of the chlorine industry. While most, if not all, industry participants advocated continued production, the ethicists in the dialogue ranged over the entire continuum.

[10] The following case study written by Bob Stivers is an attempt to feature this continuum. It takes Bob’s interpretation of the discussions and puts them in the setting of an Earth Day debate about chlorine sunset. The four main characters present the critical perspectives in the dialogue. First a biology professor summarizes the basic facts about chlorine. Participants in the actual dialogue spent considerable time investigating various chlorine products, their beneficial uses, and their environmental costs.

[11] Second, a representative from an environmental organization makes the case for phase-out. Environmental perspectives were represented in the dialogue primarily by the ethicists, although most industry advocates were well acquainted with them. In addition, almost everyone in the dialogue studied the Greenpeace position as interpreted by Joe Thornton in his book, Pandora’s Poison.[1]

[12] Third, a spokeswoman for the chlorine industry advocates continued production with appropriate safeguards. In the dialogue industry representatives usually held this position, although most of the ethicists were favorably disposed to some chlorine products, especially those that have minimal environmental impact.

[13] Finally, a philosophy professor clarifies certain aspects of the debate and directs critical comments at both sides, seemingly taking a position somewhere in between. In the dialogue almost everyone played such a role at one time or another. The critical exchange of perspectives was central to the process. The case concludes with a student (and presumably the reader) sifting through the arguments and asking herself where she stands.

[14] This case study is one of nine to appear in a new book by James Martin-Schramm and Robert Stivers. Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach. Orbis Books, Fall 2003.


Chlorine Sunset?
Toxic Wastes and the Precautionary Principle

[15] Amanda Felice had been hard at work on her senior thesis at the state university. Her major was environmental studies, a field she had selected in her sophomore year on the basis of her love of animals and passion for a clean environment. One reason she had gone to the university in the first place was its excellent reputation in environmental studies. Her program was well integrated, and her teachers had introduced her to a wide range of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. She now felt prepared to enter the interdisciplinary discussions she would encounter after graduation working for a local environmental organization concerned with clean water in the bay.

[16] Her senior thesis on the chlorine chemical industry and its impact on the environment had been a real challenge so far. It required research into chlorine chemistry and the many chlorine-based chemicals the industry had released to the environment. She had also studied the history, economics, and politics of the industry. Last semester she had taken a course in environmental ethics

[17] Tonight’s Earth Day program sponsored by the campus environmental organization gave her further opportunity to evaluate her direction with the thesis. In general, she agreed with Greenpeace that chlorine production should be phased-out because so many chlorine-based products have caused harm to both humans and to the natural environment. She knew the Greenpeace position from reading Joe Thornton’s book, Pandora’s Poison, but still looked forward to hearing it articulated by a

[18] Representative from a local environmental group. She would also hear the industry position from an executive at Davis Chemical Company, who would no doubt present the case for continued production. Her conclusion about the phase-out had implications for her senior thesis. She would have to be clearer about the industry perspective in order to make a judgment.

Eric Hansen

[19] Professor Eric Hansen from the university’s Chemistry Department led the program off with a summary of chlorine chemistry and its commercial utility. He explained that chlorine is element seventeen in the periodic table and the eleventh most abundant element in nature. “It is found,” he said, “mostly joined with sodium as salt, a stable bond in which it poses no threat to human health or the environment. Free chlorine disassociated from sodium is, however, a deadly gas and highly reactive because of its electron structure. It is attracted to elements like sodium because it needs one electron to complete its outer shell of electrons. Sodium is in turn attracted to chlorine because it has one electron to give up. Salt is thus a very stable molecule.”

[20] “Years ago,” he continued, “chemists found that chlorine could be separated from sodium by passing an electrical current through salt water. The technique is called the chlor-alkali process, and is fundamental to all chlorine-based products. They also discovered that the free chlorine that results, while a deadly gas, could be used to disinfect water, bleach paper, and be easily combined with carbon based organic molecules to form what are called organochlorines with useful properties.

[21] “The other product of the chlor-alkali process is sodium hydroxide or caustic soda, also with useful properties. Indeed, caustic soda has been the more important in terms of profit for the chlorine chemical industry, although chlorine has attracted far more attention. I mention this,” he added, “because it is important to see that caustic soda in a sense drives the production of chlorine. Industry cannot sell caustic soda unless it finds outlets for chlorine gas. And since chlorine gas is so deadly, and deadly because reactive with organic matter, industry does not want to ship or store it but rather recombine it in a more stable and less deadly form as soon as possible.

[22] “The useful properties of organochlorines (over 11,000 have been synthesized to date) are reactivity, persistence, water insolubility, and toxicity. Chlorine adds to the stability of these organic compounds by replacing hydrogen. The chlorine bond is stronger and increases resistance to degradation and further reactivity. Organochlorines generally do not dissolve in water, although many do so in fat. Organochlorines are frequently toxic to other organic matter, a property useful as a cleanser.

[23] “Chemists have synthesized organochlorines to make use of one or more of these properties. Today organochlorines are used to protect crops, fight disease, clean clothes and machinery, and make medical equipment and drugs. The single biggest use is in PVC plastic, better known as vinyl, with multiple uses. Chlorine-based compounds are indeed versatile.

[24] “The same properties that are so useful to industry, however, are also problematic,” he went on to say. “Persistence means that they do not break down easily or rapidly in nature. Water insolubility and fat solubility mean they are not readily eliminated as waste by organisms but tend rather to accumulate in fatty tissue and pass on through the food chain in ever greater accumulations. They bioaccumulate, we say. Persistence and bioaccumulation can also work together to magnify the effects of certain organochlorines. Finally, toxicity is both short and long term. Elemental chlorine is a deadly gas. Used extensively in the trench warfare of World War I, it is acutely toxic. Chlorine-based compounds are not acutely toxic but over the long term in sufficient doses can disrupt endocrine systems, cause cancer, impair reproductive systems and cognitive development, and suppress immune systems.

[25] “Organochlorines are rare in nature, their presence almost all a result of the human release of synthesized compounds. They vary greatly in their damaging effects, although relatively little is known about how they work or the extent of damage. Some, like the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ persistent organic pollutants (POPS) and dioxins are extremely damaging, the more exposure generally the more damage. The extent of the hazard represented by organochlorines and other chlorine-based compounds has not been definitively established, however. What we do know is that cancer rates are rising, that the rate of species extinction is high, and that habitat degradation is endemic. Nobody knows how much of this environmental damage can be attributed to chlorine.

[26] “Before I close, I should also mention chlorofluorocarbons that deplete the earth’s ozone layer. The chlorine industry has all but stopped their production, and the ozone layer is expected to recover, but it will take some time for this to happen. The release of these substances is an example of failure to take proper precautions.

Larry Burton

[27] With this professor Hansen sat down and passed the microphone to Larry Burton from a local environmental group concerned with air and water pollution in the region. Larry thanked professor Hansen for his summary and began to make his case for a phase-out of chlorine production.[3]

[28] He started by citing the long train of environmental abuse created by chlorine-based products, especially organochlorines. He noted places like Love Canal in New York State, Times Beach in Missouri, and Cancer Alley on the lower Mississippi. He reviewed the reactivity, the persistence, the bioaccumulation, and the toxicity of organochlorines. He talked briefly about pesticides, PCBs, and dioxins.

[29] Larry then acknowledged that the chlorine industry had made some effort to clean up its production processes, to test new chemicals before release, and to curtail production of the dirty dozen and other obviously harmful organochlorines. He further acknowledged the industry’s role in negotiating the POPS treaty to eliminate persistent pollutants. Finally, he saw progress in reducing the discharge of dioxins from incinerators and in general more effective management of the waste stream.

[30] “In spite of these gains,” he said, “we are still running a grand experiment on the health of humans, other species, and ecosystems. We continue to release chlorine in its many forms to the environment without knowing much about effects. What we do know about chlorine chemistry and past damage should put us on alert. Even though there is great variability in the capacity of these chemicals to cause damage, we have ample reason to suspect harm.” Professor Hansen spoke about rising cancer rates, species extinction, and habitat degradation. “These are just the tip of the iceberg,” he added.

[31] “The efforts to manage this experiment rely on something that former Greenpeace associate Joe Thornton calls the ‘risk paradigm’. The risk paradigm calls for managing individual pollutants using science-based technology. Studies of toxicity and of effects on human health (epidemiological studies) are used to assess health risks and damage to the environment. Safe levels of release are calculated by experimenting with laboratory animals and extrapolating to humans. If the risk is high, industry ceases production or does not produce the chemical in question in the first place. Otherwise it uses pollution control devices and improved waste control techniques to reduce whatever risk there may be. Whether risk is acceptable depends further on cost/benefit analysis where risk is weighed against the economic and social benefits of a product. If the benefits are high and the risk relatively low, industry proceeds with production.”

[32] At this point a hand shot up and Larry recognized a student. “Has the risk paradigm worked?” asked the student. “It seems to me the record is rather mixed, at least if what you say is correct.”

[33] “The risk paradigm looks good on paper,” Larry answered, ” but it doesn’t work very well and masks a lot of hazards. It has failed for several reasons. It focuses on localized health risks and misses the subtle and long-term effects on species and ecosystems. It considers only the risks that can be counted. It takes for granted the accuracy of scientists and technologists who measure and assess risk and extrapolate from laboratory animals to humans. It takes an atomistic and reductionistic view of cause and effect by focusing on individual chemicals and making simplifying assumptions about the chemicals studied. It assumes there are acceptable levels of risk that are measurable even at low doses. In fact low doses are seldom calculated and pose substantial hazards. It also assumes that biological systems have some capacity to assimilate toxic substances, an assumption that is difficult to confirm because these systems are extremely complex, the variables to factor in are so numerous, and the number of organochlorines so great. If biologists have learned anything in recent years, it is how little they know about complex ecosystems. Toxicologists and epidemiologists are no where near being able to predict or diagnose the long-term effects of low doses.

[34] “They are also unsure about extrapolating from animals to humans. They have barely begun to assess the total pollution burden on health and the synergistic effects among chemicals. Finally, the risk paradigm assumes that regulation, industry good will, and pollution control will keep toxic damage to acceptable levels. These are also questionable assumptions; and even if accurate, they are not safe assumptions given our present state of scientific knowledge.

[35] “The chemical industry parades the risk paradigm with all these flaws as ‘sound science,’ thereby creating the illusion that toxic pollution is under control and things are getting better. The industry sprinkles its risk assessments with precise numbers to suggest scientific objectivity and pads its cost/benefit analyses by understating the hazards and overstating the benefits. The risk paradigm is human centered, or, as we say, anthropocentric, disconnected from nature, and atomistic. It is informed by notions of domination. In short, it is the ideological perspective of those who want to use the environment for profit. It is politics in the disguise of ‘sound science.’

[36] “Fortunately, there are alternatives,” he insisted. “To start with I suggest a paradigm shift, an alternative worldview. Following Thornton, I call it the ‘ecological paradigm’. It is a perspective that is already well established in the environmental community and spreading rapidly. In contrast to the risk paradigm, it takes a biocentric, holistic, and integrated approach. It centers on ecosystems and their health and humans as parts of ecosystems. It focuses on long term hazards and uses data from many disciplines. It uses sound scientific knowledge but recognizes the limits of such knowledge.

[37] “Part of the ecological paradigm is the treatment of organochlorines and other chlorine-based chemicals as a class of chemicals. Treating chlorine-based chemicals as a class stands in contrast to the one by one, chemical by chemical procedure in the risk paradigm. They are a class because they are produced by the same process and have many of the same harmful properties. This is not a radical approach. We already consider chlorofluorocarbons, PCBs, lead containing substances, and even alcohol and tobacco as classes. Treating organoclorines as a class of substances avoids the high cost and impracticality of testing the over 11,000 organochlorines already synthesized. It puts the spotlight back on the industrial production of a single element, chlorine, as the constituent element in commercial uses. It points to the hazardous potential of all organochlorines because of persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity. Treating organochlorines as a class finally takes into account all that we do not know about how they damage organic systems.”

[38] With this another student raised her hand. “I have been hearing in class,” she said, “about something called the precautionary principle. Can you tell us about it?

[39] “The precautionary principle,” Larry explained, “has emerged recently in environmental thinking and has gained a lot of support. Basically, the precautionary principle is about prudence, the long neglected virtue that calls for caution and discretion. Chemicals that may cause damage should not be released to natural environments. While there are numerous definitions of the principle, I think the one by ethicist James Nash is good. His definition reads: ‘In the absence of scientific surety, when scientific or other empirical evidence provides substantial reason for thinking that a process or product might cause unwarranted harm to human welfare or ecological integrity, whether that harm is reversible or irreversible, present or future, decision-makers shall exercise due care by acting appropriately to avoid or minimize such risk’.[4]

[40] In my interpretation of the principle three additional concepts give specificity: 1) reverse onus, 2) zero discharge, and 3) clean production. Reverse onus means that chlorine-related products, especially those containing organochlorines, are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof rests on industry to show that organochlorines are safe. This shift reverses the present practice of placing the burden of proof on the public to provide evidence of damage before restrictions are placed.

[41] “The second concept is zero discharge of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substances. This concept has two important implications. First it prohibits all releases by demanding effective pollution control. Second, since pollution control technologies can never be totally effective, it means the phase-out of all persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substances, in this case all organochlorines.

[42] “The third concept is clean production which specifies how zero discharge can be accomplished. It is an approach that emphasizes upstream solutions instead of pollution control. It prevents the generation of pollutants at their source in the chlor-alkali process.

[43] “What I am proposing is a chlorine sunset, a phasing out of organochlorines and other substances using chlorine. I know this will seem to those in the chlorine industry to be a radical policy, but consider the radical things industry is doing to human health and the environment. They are introducing chemicals into nature whose effects are irreversible. Who is the radical anyway? A chlorine sunset is the only way to protect people and the natural environment from toxic organochlorines. We do not have to accomplish this immediately, and it is reversible. As non-toxic alternatives become available, industry should make substitutions. Eventually all chlorine production should end, and with it our radical assault on the environment. Fortunately, cost-effective substitutes are available for most industrial uses of chlorine.” Today the case for substitutes is even stronger. Chemical plants and other storage facilities for elemental chlorine are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Large quantities of hazardous materials are shipped by rail and road and sit in storage tanks waiting to be used. Whole communities could be wiped out.

[44] With that Larry sat down to loud applause. Amanda liked what she heard and joined in the applause. She was troubled, however, by the implications of Larry’s paradigm for the chlorine industry and the global economy, especially for employment levels. To accomplish what Larry proposed would mean the end of a highly capitalized industry that employs thousands of workers, provides useful products, and contributes to economic development. Higher prices, assuming substitutes cost more, would put a crimp in the development plans of poorer countries. Larry was asking a lot, especially in an atmosphere of scientific uncertainty, but then past abuses had done a lot of damage to the environment.

Lucia Hernandez

[45] Amanda hoped the next speaker, Lucia Hernandez, would address these concerns. Lucia was introduced as a corporate executive with Davis Chemical Company and an associate with the Chlorine Chemical Council, an arm of the industry-wide Chemical Manufacturers Association. Lucia picked up the microphone.

[46] “I am fully aware,” she began, “that the chemical industry has in the past released harmful substances to the environment. This is a matter of record. Since becoming aware of the problems, the chlorine industry has taken giant strides to clean up its act. We have ceased the production of suspect chemicals, cleaned up manufacturing processes, dramatically improved the safe use and transport of our products, decreased our waste, undertaken substantial and often costly efforts to test our products, and cooperated with community and government agencies. We are well on our way to being a sustainable industry in the sense that we can maintain levels of production without causing undue harm to the environment. So I am not here tonight to be defensive or rebut critics of the industry who want to shut us down. I will stand on the positive initiatives we have taken and the contributions we make to economic and social life.

[47] “The two previous speakers gave you some idea of the many useful commercial products of the chlorine industry. Chlorine is used in water purification, in prescription and over-the-counter medications, in the manufacture of cars, trucks, and computers, in home and office construction, in food processing and packaging, in plastics, and in the defense industry. The value added to the economy and overall society is tremendous, and I would be happy to share these benefits after the forum with anyone who would like to talk further. But let me instead speak to the environmental issues that are the Earth Day concern of this session.

[48] “The foundation for our efforts to be good corporate citizens is the Responsible Careâ initiative of the chemical industry started in the late 1980s. With this program each member company of the Chemical Manufacturers Association has committed itself to improve the industry’s responsible management of chemicals. The program has several elements. It includes a set of ten Guiding Principles that make health, safety and environmental considerations our highest priorities. Each company signs on to these principles indicating its support.

[49] “The ten principles are given greater specificity by five more detailed codes. First, the Pollution Prevention Code is designed to achieve a reduction in pollutants. It includes a Toxics Release Inventory where we record our emissions to the environment. Second, the Process Safety Code is aimed to prevent fires, explosions, and accidental releases. Third, the Distribution Code commits us to work with the carriers, distributors, contractors, and our own employees to reduce risk. Fourth, the Employee Health and Safety Code works to protect our employees and visitors. Fifth, the Product Stewardship Code makes environmental protection an integral part of designing, manufacturing, marketing, distributing, using, recycling, and disposing of products.

[50] “In addition, the program brings together the chemical industry and local communities for cooperative emergency planning. The program also establishes a public advisory panel made up of knowledgeable leaders in the fields of health, safety, and environmental protection. The program calls for member self-evaluation. We require reports on how each company is implementing the codes. We have credible external performance measures to ensure progress. We have successfully encouraged member companies to assist each other and have measures in place, including disassociating a company from membership, to deal with those companies that do not perform well. All in all, Responsible Careâ is one of the best programs of its kind, and we have evidence over the years to support our claims to environmental stewardship. We can demonstrate progress. Again, I would be glad to share more about the program and the evidence of success with you after the forum.

[51] “The ethical basis for our Responsible Careâ program is the norm of sustainable development. According to the Bruntland Commission in 1987: ‘Sustainable development is globally recognized as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ It consists of three major components: environment, economy, and society. The production of chemicals cannot be sustainable if it destroys its ecological foundation or harms human health. This is obvious.

[52] “At the same time the present generation has a responsibility to pass on to future generations a productive and stable economy to meet basic needs. Productive capacity is determined among other things by the accumulation of capital, the provision of jobs, trade, and technological innovation, all things the chlorine chemical industry does well. We also produce socially useful products. Chlorine-based products are on the market because people want them and are satisfied by what we produce. So environment concerns are important, but so are economic and social goods.”

[53] As Lucia paused, a student raised her hand. “My father,” she said, “claims industry codes are so much smoke and mirrors designed to protect profits. When I mentioned sustainable development in a discussion at Christmas time, I though he would have a fit. He argued the concept is much too vague. What do you think?”

[54] “I am glad you asked about that,” Lucia answered. “In pursuing a course of sustainable development we have made an important discovery. In the 1960s and 1970s environmental improvement focused on pollution abatement, that is to say, end of pipe remediation. Environmental protection was looked on as a cost of production and a drain on profits.

[55] “During the 1980s we shifted to a philosophy of pollution prevention. We found that prevention actually paid for itself by reducing wastes and fees for waste disposal. It also lowered our costs as we learned to recycle wastes and even to create new products by turning waste into a resource and by increasing efficiency as newer, cleaner replaced older, dirtier technologies. Pollution prevention turned from a cost to a source of profit, reduced regulatory pressures, increased customer loyalty, improved financial performance, and pleased our stakeholders. We firmly believe the norm of sustainable development that is the basis of our Responsible Careâ program is a win-win for us, the environment, the economy, and society. Yes, we seek to be profitable. If we did not, we would go out of business and our workers would lose their jobs.”

[56] As Lucia paused, another student raised her hand and said: “The previous speaker, Mr. Burton, talked about the precautionary principle. What is your take on that?”

[57] “We support this principle,” she said, “although sometimes we find it vague, misleading, and given to extreme misinterpretations. We in the chlorine chemical industry believe that risks from our products are effectively managed by our Responsible Careâ program and existing regulatory frameworks. We are practicing the precautionary principle.

[58] “We recognize, however, there are those like Mr. Burton who think that risk assessment and risk management are inconsistent with the precautionary principle. Indeed, Mr. Burton leaves no room for any chlorine-based products because he dismisses the possibility that scientists and technologists can ever assess risk with acceptable precision. While he claims to use sound science, he only uses it to identify general hazards or intrinsic properties such as persistence and bioaccumulation. He ignores the great number of excellent studies done on specific chlorine-based products by respected toxicologists and epidemiologists. These studies conclude that our products are safe. When it comes to policy, Mr. Burton also ignores the great differences between organochlorines as to persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity. Mr. Burton’s science seems to stop at the door of scientific principles. It should go on to study specifics. Absolute scientific certainty is rarely achievable, of course, but we are convinced that our products meet the test of safety; and where scientific evidence indicates otherwise, we are prepared to remove unsafe products from the market.

[59] “What we in the chlorine industry advocate is a balanced approach to the precautionary principle. We agree with proponents of the principle that potential risks and uncertainty should be taken into account in risk assessment and management. We agree it is prudent to evaluate impacts of products and processes before they are introduced. We agree it is generally better to prevent adverse impacts than trying to mitigate such impacts after the fact. We agree risk management systems can always be improved.

[60] “With these agreements in mind, here is how we interpret the precautionary principle in situations of risk and uncertainty. We believe:

1) That reasoned judgments can be made about thresholds of exposure, the capacity of systems to assimilate harmful substances, and acceptable levels of risk even when uncertainty remains.

2) That science-based risk assessment is the best
tool to determine the seriousness of the hazard and the likelihood of adverse effects.

3) That regulators and industry should not insist on absolute scientific certainty as a precondition of controlling products or processes that may be harmful. By the same token, there should be credible scientific evidence that serious or irreversible harm is likely before restrictions are imposed.

4) That when uncertainties are large and the probabilities of harm remote restrictions are unwarranted.

5) That in situations of unacceptable harm, cost-effective risk management decisions should be selected.

6) That risk management decisions should be proportionate to the harm to be avoided.

7) That risk management decisions should be targeted to a specific chemical or application using best available scientific knowledge.

8) That in situations where substitution of one activity or product by another is considered, the following conditions be met:

– The substitute has a comparable function or effectiveness.
– Risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis are performed and compared for the original activity or product and the alternative proposed.
– The economic impact is proportionate to the environmental benefit.
– The substitute is not likely to cause an equally or more burdensome effect on health, safety, and the environment.

9) That decisions to restrict, manage, or substitute factor in economic and social considerations along with health, safety, and environmental impacts.

10) That efforts to reduce uncertainty and make decisions should depend on reasonable judgments about intended use, the potential of human or environmental exposure, the likelihood of harm, and the anticipated benefits of the activity or product.

11) That a credible threat of serious or irreversible harm must be established before the precautionary principle comes into play. Industry should not have to demonstrate the absence of adverse effects as a condition of introducing and activity or product. The absence of adverse effect is impossible to prove, and its use as a precondition would stifle industry and have negative economic consequences.

[61] “To achieve the three major components of sustainable development-environment, economy, and society-we think our interpretation will serve better than outright proscription that focuses only on the environment. We think in addition that our Responsible Careâ program satisfies the norm of sustainable development. Finally, we are well aware of our vulnerability to terrorist attack. We have beefed up security at our plants, improved storage facilities, and tried to get information about facilities and storage out of the public domain. Unfortunately, right-to-know groups and even Greenpeace are resisting efforts to limit information by putting it on their websites. This only helps the terrorists.”

[62] Lucia sat down to strong applause. Amanda liked the way Lucia turned suspicion of the chemical industry into a positive statement of accomplishments and service. She wondered, however, whether Lucia’s characterization of the industry fit actual facts. Was it merely public relations, as one of the students who asked a question seemed to suggest, or was there real substance to the stated environmental concern of the industry? Also, did Lucia reflect the attitudes of managers and workers or just a few on the Chlorine Chemistry Council? She would have to investigate these claims further for her senior thesis.

Janet White

[63] The last speaker was Janet White from the Philosophy Department at the university. Janet was also the current head of the Environmental Studies Program. Amanda had a lot of respect for Janet and wondered how she would draw all this together.

[64] Professor White rose and thanked Eric Hansen, Larry Burton, and Lucia Hernandez for their remarks. She confessed her befuddlement about how the two paradigms that Larry Burton described could be put together to achieve a coherent and effective policy. “The either/or of the situation,” she said, “leads to a tug of war that will not clean up the environment. This either/or quality of environmental debates troubles me. Perhaps the best I can do in the time allotted is present the differences and ask some hard questions.

[65] “First of all I would like to rename Larry Burton’s paradigms. Instead of paradigms, I would like to call them perspectives and give them the titles ‘conservationist’ and ‘critical ecology’. Lucia Hernandez and the chlorine industry are conservationists who think in more anthropocentric fashion that nature should be used wisely for human good and that industry can keep risk to acceptable levels with scientific management. This is a time-honored perspective in the American environmental movement often associated with Gifford Pinchot in the early twentieth century.

[66] “Larry comes from an emerging movement in American environmental thought that takes a biocentric approach and is critical of corporate efforts to remove environmental hazards by using scientific management. He is suspicious of management, of the capacity of scientists and technologists to trace the effects of over 11,000 organochlorines, and of finding technological fixes. His foremost interest is the protection of nature and human health.

[67] “To some extent common ground exists. Both want to protect human health and the environment. Both value nature. Both appreciate ‘sound science’. This common ground may be a starting point for dialogue, but their differences are profound and raise very important issues. Where, for example, should we stand on the spectrum between anthropocentrism and biocentrism? How much should economic and social good count in environmental decisions? Larry Burton would seem to count them far less than Lucia Hernandez, but then we must understand there will be no human economy or social good without healthy ecosystems. Put in slightly different terms: Are we willing to do a little or a lot of damage to nature to sustain our levels of economic growth and consumption?

[68] “On another front Lucia claims scientists are is in a position to determine acceptable levels of release for most toxins. At low levels of toxicity she says the products of the chlorine industry do not cause appreciable harm to the environment. Biological systems have a capacity to assimilate toxins. Larry contends in opposition that almost all organochlorines have some degree of persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity. Sound science points to harm, he says, so we should be suspicious of all chlorine-based products and take precautions unless there is definitive proof no harm exists. Since there can be no such definitive proof, chlorine should be phased-out, its production eventually stopped at its source.

[69] “This is a tough one to settle. Most established scientists seem to argue with Lucia, but a vocal minority disagrees. There is a high degree of uncertainty about the evidence, however. Non-scientists like myself do not have the tools to determine which side is correct. The waters are further muddied by the future nature of assessments. Both sides have the luxury of foretelling the future without fear of being proven wrong in the present. Verification will only come later on, if at all, and then the predictors will be long gone. So predictions easily follow current self-interest and disguise it. This points to the political nature of all claims to sound science. Science never determines acceptable levels. Humans do. Acceptability is an ethical and political determination. Indeed, both risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis, however helpful, are ultimately ethical and political, at least as currently practiced.

[70] “Still other differences confound our deliberations. Should we consider chlorine-based chemicals as a class in Larry’s holistic fashion? Or, alternatively, should we assess persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity on a chemical by chemical basis in Lucia’s atomistic or individualistic approach? Larry’s way is doable and reversible but has rather drastic economic implications in the short run. Lucia’s way is cumbersome and might create a lot of health and environmental harm in the long run.

[71] “Who should have the burden of proof? Larry puts it on industry with his concept of reverse onus and would probably call for strict regulations to enforce it. That makes some sense. We test drugs before they go on the market and generally follow the ‘polluter pays’ principle in our legal framework to fix responsibility. Yet most of us benefit from the goods of chlorine-based products and their relatively low prices. The task of testing over 11,000 organochlorines would be costly, may be impossible, and would probably stifle innovation in the industry.

[72] “Lucia was vague on where to place the burden. On the one hand she seemed to say industry regulated by environmental laws was already testing new chemicals before releasing them to the market. The Responsible Careâ program is an indication that industry has accepted some part of the burden of proof. On the other hand in her interpretation of the precautionary principle she seemed to be troubled by governmental regulation and explicitly rejected the imperative that industry demonstrate no adverse effect before the precautionary principle comes in to play. Her position is understandable. A strict application of reverse onus would be at best costly and at worst shut down her company.

[73] “Larry also realizes these implications. One thing for sure, who does the determination of proof and what criteria are used will be hotly debated. Lawyers, politicians, and scientists will have plenty of work.

[74] “Here I should also mention that the Responsible Careâ program, however well it is doing, is still an industry initiative. While the industry has articulated admirable codes and principles, set up a public advisory board, and developed performance measures, no independent, outside accountability is in place. We have to take its word at face value. This is like students grading their own papers. Most of us would be more willing to accept this were there some system of independent auditing. We require financial audits. Environmental audits by outside auditors would seem appropriate as well.

[75] “As for Lucia’s interpretation of sustainability and precaution, she leaves the industry in full control of vague definitions and decisions about cost-benefit analysis. Sustainability needs to be more narrowly defined to ensure protection of the environment, not qualified by so many other considerations as to give industry license to avoid change. The determination of what constitutes precaution needs greater public input. As Lucia’s interpretation now stands, it both reverses the meaning of precaution and is not very credible to people like myself.

[76] “The matter of alternatives to organochlorines is another difficult issue. Larry calls for phase-out, not an immediate end to production. He thinks good substitutes exist for almost all uses. The industry differs, pointing to the trade-offs involved and the inadequacy of many substitutes. Lucia worded her interpretation of the precautionary principle on substitutes in such a way that industry could delay indefinitely.

[77] “In conclusion, the debate between the chlorine industry and its most vocal critics is before us. The issues are many and their resolution critical to the future of ecological systems, human health, and levels of human consumption. As with most environmental debates, the two sides talk past each other because their perspectives and vital interests are so different. They seem to live in different worlds. Public awareness is weak at best. Those of us in the middle of this debate have a role to play in keeping pressure on industry and government to reduce the release of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals to the environment. This may seem to be siding with the critics, but without pressure the industry will probably relax.

[78] “For the students in the audience, get yourselves informed first, then act. Don’t let complexity and conflicting arguments dampen your spirits. Most important, don’t lose your spirit and your sense of inner integrity. Those are the wellsprings of environmental action. Spirit and integrity empower the self especially when they are informed by a good vision of the future. As the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures puts it: ‘Without vision the people perish’. For some your vision will come from your religious faith. That is a good source because it is grounded in community, but one whose concrete expression today must be better informed by holistic concerns for both justice and ecology.”

[79] With that Janet thanked the audience for attending. “Have a good Earth Week,” she added.


[80] As Amanda reflected on the forum the next day, she was not disappointed. The exhortation to get informed struck home. She had a good working knowledge of the issues and now felt renewed vigor for her project and future career. Perhaps this sense of renewal was the spirit Janet was talking about. She needed it. This senior thesis had a long way to go. So what should she conclude about the issues raised and which of the perspectives should she adopt? Should she include a call for phase-out in her thesis? Both sides had made reasonable cases. Now it was her turn to make some decisions.

Please note: Introduction by James Childs is unique to JLE. Other materials taken from
“Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach.” Orbis Books, Fall 2003. Used with permission.

[1] Joe Thornton, Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[2] Robert L. Stivers prepared this case and commentary. The case is based on actual events. The names and places have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

[3] Larry Burton’s perspective is based on the work of Joe Thornton.

[4] The 1998 Wingspread Declaration reads:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Article 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992 reads:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The Greenpeace definition reads:

“Do not admit a substance until you have proof that it will do no harm to the environment.”

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.