Anti-chlorine activists hope politics will trump science

Published October 1, 2002

Attempting to avoid debate on one of the most controversial bills introduced this year, a group of U.S. senators is proposing severe restrictions on chlorine in the name of “homeland security.”

Under Senate Bill 1602, passed on July 25 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the Environmental Protection Agency would be given authority to force American industries to severely restrict or completely eliminate their use of chlorine and similar chemicals. Many senators who support the bill want to attach it to legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security.

Chlorine vital in disease prevention

Chlorine is widely used by industries and individual citizens alike due to its efficiency at killing health-threatening bacteria. Chlorine is the primary sanitizer of public drinking water and is essential in fighting disease-causing bacteria in public and private swimming pools. However, the benefits of chlorine extend well beyond water-related uses.

According to Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “the use of chlorine is one of the greatest public health achievements in history, saving millions of lives each year.

“Chlorine doesn’t only kill pathogens in our drinking water;” she notes. “We use it to make 80 percent of our pharmaceuticals, disinfect medical equipment, keep our hospitals sanitary, kill bacteria on our produce, and disinfect numerous other things that could otherwise transmit deadly diseases.”

Nevertheless, chlorine has been a longstanding target of Greenpeace and other groups opposed to any use of man-made chemicals. “There are no known uses for chlorine which we regard as safe,” said Greenpeace’s Joe Thornton in a 1993 issue of Science magazine.

Studies show chemicals safe

The chlorine debate now underway in the Senate is just the latest example of how anti-chemical environmental groups use politics to respond to scientific research.

On August 11, 2002, the New York Times reported the results of an $8 million study investigating alleged links between chlorine and other chemicals and slightly elevated breast cancer rates among women on Long Island. Dr. Deborah Winn and the National Cancer Institute studied the Long Island environment and women living on Long Island after earlier studies showed breast cancer rates in Nassau and Suffolk counties were roughly 3 percent higher than the national average. Anti-chemical groups had asserted the higher breast cancer rates were due to chlorine and other chemicals, and the groups lobbied hard for the funding of the National Cancer Institute study.

The results of the study? Not only was there no link found between cancer rates and the scapegoated chemicals, but the study took the further step of completely exonerating chemicals as a cause of the area’s elevated cancer rate. The data, according to Winn, “were very, very conclusive.”

Winn’s National Cancer Institute study reported results consistent with those of numerous previous studies. For example, a 1997 study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzed breast cancer rates among more than 32,000 nurses. The study found no evidence that exposure to chemicals such as DDT and PCBs increases a person’s cancer risk.

In 1998, a similar study headed by Dr. David Hunter, director of the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention, analyzed data from five separate studies of more than 1,600 women. The results, published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed no connection between exposure to chemicals and breast cancer rates.

“I think we have the answers for these chemicals,” concluded Hunter in dismissing claims that chemical exposure leads to cancer.

Politics vs. science

“I refuse to accept the fact that they didn’t find anything,” protested Geri Barish, president of a Long Island anti-chemical group called 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition. “We need to do a lot more studies.”

Or pass a lot more bills. Unable to prevail in the laboratory, anti-chemical groups are seeking to prevail in the U.S. Senate.

SB 1602, sponsored by Senator Jon Corzine (D-New Jersey), would direct EPA to force facilities to replace chlorine and other chemicals with “inherently safer technology.” The bill would allow EPA to determine just what constitutes “inherently safer technology.” And, as CEI’s Logomasini observes, “EPA will likely be pressured by Greenpeace and similar groups to define inherently safer as ‘chlorine free’ or at least ‘severely reduced chlorine use.'” This, of course, despite the findings of the National Cancer Institute study, the New England Journal of Medicine study, the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention study, and a plethora of other studies that have examined the issue. Under SB 1602, politics would triumph over science.

“That’s what happens when science is made subservient to policy and politics, especially when millions of dollars in financing is also at stake,” observed Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director for the American Council on Science and Health. “They had been told so often by environmental activists that there must be some relation between breast cancer rates here and one or another chemical pollutant that it became received wisdom; no doubters were tolerated.”

“Why keep wasting tax money on these studies—money that could be put to much more effective use in public health areas crying out for financing?” asked Ross.

“There comes a point after so many studies are done that it becomes less productive to continue that line of work,” agreed Dr. Barbara Hulka, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

However, money lost to redundant studies and money lost in enforcing unnecessary anti-chemical laws are only the tip of the iceberg of potential harms, according to Logomasini.

“Residents in Peru learned about such risks in 1991,” she notes. “Inadequate chlorination has been cited in scientific literature as a key contributor in a cholera epidemic that started in Peru and spread throughout the hemisphere, leading to 533,000 cases of cholera and 4,700 deaths.”

“Similar recommendations by environmental activists that we switch to allegedly safer products have already created serious problems,” she adds. “For example, Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times, recently documented the dangers created by an environmental campaign that pushed hospitals to eliminate products using mercury. She reported that alternative ‘mercury-free’ blood-pressure equipment sometimes produces terribly wrong readings, leading doctors to administer improper medication. In one case, the wrong medication led a woman to have a stroke.”

So what will be the end result in this latest round of politics vs. science? Keep an eye on the Homeland Security Bill, of all things, for a revelation of this year’s winner.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information

the full text of SB 1602 is available on the Internet at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Web site,