Our Millennium Challenge

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

Our Millennium Challenge


calls for sound science and eco-efficiency to
achieve environmentally sustainable development


The new millennium is fast approaching. Amid the hype, what do analysts declare to be society's greatest technical challenge? By many accounts, it is fixing the 'year 2000 problem' by re-configuring computers and data systems to track the passage of time in a new age.

The early computer wizards were perhaps too consumed by their amazing innovations to worry about the next millennium. This young industry was just introducing its first models for commercial use when Rachel Carson's groundbreaking Silent Spring was published in 1962. With that bestseller, and reports of other ecological problems that followed, an environmental movement was born.

The dawn of the computer age and environmental activism seem virtually simultaneous. Each movement has in different ways changed the very core of our society and values, and how we live and work.

Computers and Internet technology brought us virtual offices, an intricate World Wide Web and electronic commerce. Today, one hour of commercial transmission in New York City equals the entire economic dialogue of the 19th century. The new world flashes by us, with few rest-stops for bleary-eyed cybertravellers. In a short half-century, computers have revolutionized the business world.

Likewise, the environmental movement created scepticism amidst the public's fascination with industrial wonders and compelled businesses to scrutinize their operations. Leaders of thought, from Carson to Muir, deserve credit for lifting the environment to the top of the political and social agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite their sometimes controversial methods, the activists' impact was clear. Industry would forever alter its manufacturing practices and its relationship with the public.

The point of greatest impact on the chemical industry is where these two movements converge. Three-dimensional computer models, for example, help predict with relative accuracy the possible path of chemical releases. We can quantify what the potential global impact of a second Industrial Revolution in developing countries will be if we do not learn from our mistakes the first time around. Even more tangible, advances in process control and closed-loop systems help businesses dramatically cut manufacturing wastes.

The pace of change is astounding; the possibilities endless. Where we choose to go next and how we get there become the ultimate year 2000 challenge for the chemical industry and for society as a whole.

The chemical industry is quite young when measured in millenniums. French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, considered to be the father of modern chemistry, first studied oxidation and combustion in the 1770s. His breakthrough discovery of oxygen along with the work of Scheele, Priestley, Dalton, Avogadro and others was a first critical step toward industrial chemistry as we know it today.

In the late 1800s, several bold young chemists started businesses, including George Eastman and Charles Hall. In 1897, Herbert H. Dow began laying the foundation for a new company with just a head full of ideas and less than $400 cash and credit combined. People in Midland, Michigan, called him 'Crazy Dow'. Herbert Dow started his business in the 1890s by tapping the vast amount of brine underneath Midland to produce bromine through electrochemistry, a breakthrough technology at the time. His entrance into the commercial bleach market allowed him to incorporate The Dow Chemical Company on 18 May 1897.

Even as the fledgeling chemical industry grew, there were concerns about its possible impact on the environment and human health and safety. In the 1920s, for example, Dow began testing the local river water daily for chlorides and phenol. Later, disciplines like toxicology and epidemiology offered new, more sophisticated tools to understand how chemicals may impact human health and the environment.

Since then, information about the effects of chemicals has grown considerably and continues to do so. Fifty years ago, for example, we did not have much information about the health effects of lead. When reports of 'lead poisoning' hit the newspapers, emotions ran high. It was not until years later that further scientific investigation confirmed that overexposure to lead affected the human nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive and digestive systems. As a result, manufacturers reduced the amount of lead in paint to limit dramatically the chances of lead poisoning.


Science and public policy

Another example is the study of carcinogens in our society. Today, we know with a high degree of confidence what causes cancer and what substances are suspected of causing it. Yet this was a mystery only a few decades ago. Science has helped us map such cancer-causing effects, making it possible to phase out the use of carcinogens or restrict them tightly and manage their use responsibly to limit release to the environment.

With these successes in mind, what is the proper role of sound science in today's public policy arena? Fifty years from now, what do we want history to say we accomplished at the turn of the century? We certainly do not want our legacy to be an explosion of poorly researched regulation that cripples our collective future prosperity.

What we need is a way to integrate scientific principles with societal concerns into a reasoned policy-formation process. Our collective and immediate challenge for the year 2000 is to resolve several emotional scientific questions that dominate our attention today. For example:

- Endocrine disruption. Do some chemicals interfere with the human endocrine system? Recently, it has been suggested that certain chemicals in the environment have oestrogenic effects. Many of the cases seem to be anecdotal, and we need additional research to study what, if any, real impact there may be.

- Global climate change. Is it a reality, and if so, how much does industry contribute to it? Scientists have debated for decades the extent to which human activity may effect slight changes in the earth's stratosphere, if indeed such changes are no more than mere evolution. The answer may seem clear to some, but we are far from consensus.

- Chlorine chemistry. What are the health and environmental effects of chlorine and its derivatives? The environmental community continues to call for a ban on chlorinated compounds, despite a wealth of research from respected scientific organizations supporting the view that chlorine chemistry can be used safely. Certainly, compounds that are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative (PTBs) require extra attention. Where PTBs are identified, further research will also help us find reasonable alternatives.

- Risk/benefit analysis. How can we best calculate the risks and benefits of chemicals? It is a controversial topic, yet critical if we are to set priorities for future regulations and policies. Any progress we make toward sustainable development hinges upon an honest assessment of the risks and benefits - to the environment, the economy and society - of further regulation.

We desperately need sound science to help us answer these questions and others. We cannot afford to continue the 'my-science-is-better-than-your-science' shouting matches. Policies and regulations based on sound science will serve us all better than those driven by emotion and based on inaccurate, anecdotal data. Even better, we should work cooperatively on these policies.

Sound policy that ensures environmental protection, fosters economic prosperity and meets social goals, is necessary if we are to make progress toward sustainable development. We are all stakeholders in sustainability - acadaemia, government, private citizens, the environmental community and businesses (large and small) - and must work in cooperation, not confrontation.

Some encouraging collaborative efforts are under way already. Consider the case of chlorpyrifos. Just recently, DowElanco announced a ten-point programme developed jointly with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to further the safe use of Dursban insecticides (trademark of DowElanco), whose active ingredient is chlorpyrifos.

The programme calls for initiatives to replace unsubstantiated claims and concerns about the product's potential risks with high-quality research. It also specifies the withdrawal of Dursban products from certain indoor broadcast flea control uses, including foggers and pet care products. In this case, collaboration between industry and government will help broaden the margins of safety for public health in a responsible and practical manner.

Another good example relates to the question of endocrine disruption. Dr. Lynn Goldman of the EPA has assembled a panel of leading scientists with expertise in endocrine issues from universities, businesses, the environmental community and government agencies to work together on research and to develop testing systems. The goal here is to create a reliable and accepted testing system as quickly as possible to identify any possible oestrogenic effects of chemicals.

We must acknowledge and support such successful efforts to bring diverse people together to tackle tough issues in a practical way. These are critical milestones in our journey toward sustainable development.


Defining corporate responsibility

If we can agree that a scientific consensus is meaningful, we will go a long way toward meeting our year 2000 challenge. Scientists today command more credibility and respect than did 'Crazy Dow' in those early years. However, we risk a credibility crisis if we continue to let 'junk science' prevail in the media, the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

Without sound science to guide us, our quality of life in the 21st century will worsen. Governments and taxpayers will literally pay as added rules pile on paperwork and require greater oversight. The business community will pay as misguided regulations and restrictions impair our ability to compete in the global marketplace. And most importantly, consumers will pay higher prices for products, or - in the worst case - watch useful products disappear from store shelves.

While we work collaboratively to resolve key issues, industry can further harness science to regain its capacity for innovation and breakthrough technology. Efforts in recent years have focused on incremental improvements in business conditions and operating discipline. Now we long for radical innovation, a technological step change that will simultaneously force the pace of sustainable development and enhance business' ability to compete in the global marketplace.

For industry, the concept of sustainable development translates into eco-efficiency, or a practical aim to create wealth with significantly less resource intensity. Ultimately we must find ways to change our products and processes to improve customer satisfaction while radically reducing environmental impacts and increasing quality of life.

Only then will we fulfil our fundamental corporate responsibility. This responsibility is all about balancing the needs of our key stakeholders, which include employees, customers, shareholders, the neighbours of our plants and society. Their needs are not always in harmony. In fact, they often conflict. The best way we can balance their needs is by making eco-efficiency work for us. In this way, we create value for the corporation and help protect human health and the environment at the same time.

Necessary balance

As we approach the year 2000, the chemical industry's challenge is to harness its strengths in science and technology to speed the drive for eco-efficiency around the world. It will be a difficult journey, and we are only at the beginning.

Yet here is where we come full circle. To make sustainable development a reality, we need policies and regulations that offer performance-based incentives for eco-efficiency rather than just penalties for non-compliance. Furthermore, these policies and regulations must be grounded in sound science and the product of consensus in order to be most effective.

In the articles that follow, you will read many different opinions about the impact of various chemicals on the environment and human health. The bottom line is this: if sound scientific investigation deems a chemical problematic, we should take measures to restrict or phase out its use.

Above all, we must be careful of a rush to judgement on some of these emotional issues. Our society has much to gain by the careful, yet swift, scientific examination of chemicals in the environment. Resource-efficient production is the key to our future success, and to our collective health and well-being.

The prospects are exciting. Working together, we can meet our year 2000 challenge and thrive in the new millennium.

David T. Buzzelli is Vice President and Corporate Director of Environment, Health & Safety, Public Affairs and Information Systems for The Dow Chemical Company. In 1993, he was appointed co-chairman of President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development. He also serves on the board of the World Resources Institute and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

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