BOOKS & THE CULTURE False Presumptions An Unbleached History of Chlorine BY NATE BLAKESLEE PANDORA’S POISON: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy. By Joe Thornton. MIT Press. 599 pages. $34.95. 1 t all started with electricity. Just before the turn of the century, a German scientist discovered a way to split the salt molecule into its constituent components, sodium and chlorine, by passing an electrical current through ordinary saltwater. He was after the sodium, used to make alkali \(more building block in the manufacture of glass, paper, textiles, soap, and many other products. Electrolysis proved to be a much more efficient means of manufacturing alkali than any previously known method, but it also had one significant drawback. For every measure of alkali produced, the new process generated a roughly equal amount of something new under the sun: chlorine gas. Unlike naturally occurring chlorine, which is found in a variety of ubiquitous and harmless salt compounds, this unwanted gaseous byproduct was deadly, difficult to dispose of, and had no known uses. Thus was born a foreboding conundrum of Europe’s new industrial economy: science had stumbled upon a seemingly promising technology, but one which it could not completely control. What to do? The dubious wisdom of the market prevailed. The potential profits from the worldwide demand for caustic soda were too great; if this uniquely deadly byproduct, this destroyer of life, had no uses, then uses would have to be found for it. From this inauspicious beginning, the modern chlorine industry was born. Today there are forty-two plants in the United States producing chlorine gas and caustic soda, using essentially the same method developed by the Germans one hundred years ago. \(Twelve of the largest plants, accounting for over 70 percent of domestic production, are along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and drives the industry remains the same: the production of the much more valuable caustic soda is still limited by the availability of markets, or “sinks,” for dumping chlorine gas. Thus the first boom in production of chlorine \(and, therefore, caustic when vast quantities of the heavy, green gas were ordered by the military, to be made into horribly effective munitions. There followed in the interwar years a litany of inventive uses, many of which would prove to be no less deadly: from Monsanto’s marketing of PCBs \(now Pont’s ill-fated production of CFCs as a new type of refrigerant in the early thirties, to the use of DDT as an insecticide just prior to World War II. After decades of use in this country, these three chlorinated compounds were all demonstrated to be human carcinogens, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of chlorine-containing chemicals, referred to collectively as organochlorines, are now used in a plethora of applications, including PVC plastic \(by far the paper processing, solvents, pesticides, and water treatment. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, where rigorous toxicity testing prior to approval is the rule, in chemical production the chemicals are treated like human beings on trial: innocent until proven guilty. Of the roughly 11,000 organochlorines used in industry, only a very small fraction have ever been tested for their toxic effects on humans and the environment, yet virtually every one that has been tested has been proven to cause severe health effects. In effect, the chemical industry, which exploded after World War II, has for the last sixty years conducted the largest and least controlled experiment in toxicology in human history, with all of humanity \(and the rest of the anThere is no uncontaminated control group in this experiment. Organochlorines have been borne by wind and water to the far reaches of the globe. Because they are slow to degrade and prone to bioaccumulate, a toxic mixture of organochlorines has now been detected in the fat of polar bears at the North Pole, in the tissue of unborn infants, and at the bottom of the ocean. This is the morbidly fascinating history of the industry, illustrated with unsparing thoroughness by biologist Joe Thornton in Pandora’s Poison. But Thornton’s book is much more than an explanation of the problem. Thornton is a former research director for Greenpeace, and his lifetime of research and expertise has produced what will surely be considered the definitive text on this subject for a generation. This is a staggeringly well-researched volume, impressive not just for its depth but for its breadth. Beginning with a detailed account of how chlorine is made, Thornton provides thoroughly documented chapters on what makes it so chemically dangerous \(delving into a brief lesson on subatomic link between organochlorines in the environment and this nation’s cancer epidemic \(cancer now kills one in four in the U.S., up look at the way the chlorine industry operates including the increasing reliance on production for third-world consumption as U.S. markets for chlorinated products stagnate. For every banned application, two new ones spring up, as the industry strives to maintain the all-important “chlor-alkali” balance. Along the way, Thornton takes on the limitations of toxicology and epidemiology, the epistemology of science, the role of scientists in a democracy, and much more. It is both a far-reaching compendium of what is known about the dangers of organochlorines, and a compelling call for a reassessment of the very way we think about protecting public health. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 25, 2000
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