Greenpeace Versus Common Sense

Published May 1, 2000

There they go again.

Just three weeks before the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, a former Greenpeace staffer has released a book intended to frighten us into banning one of the most useful chemicals known to man, chlorine. The book, titled Pandora’s Poison, is the epitome of junk science and socialist fantasies.

Chlorine is not an “unnatural” or uniquely dangerous substance. It is found naturally in over 2,000 organic compounds. It is in our saliva, digestive tracts, and blood–not because we have been exposed to chemical pollution, but because nature put it there to enable us to digest our food and resist infections.

We humans also use chlorine in manufacturing processes and as an ingredient in many products, including car interiors, house siding, plastics for toys, packaging, bicycle helmets, and an almost endless array of other consumer products. Most drugs, including many commonly used cold remedies and vitamins, are made with chlorine. Nearly 98 percent of drinking water in the U.S. is disinfected with chlorine.

Why, if chlorine is a natural chemical with so many beneficial uses, does Pandora’s Poison author Joe Thornton call for a nearly complete ban on chlorine’s use? According to Thornton, it is because when anything is burned in the presence of chlorine, there is a possibility that dioxins will be created.

Dioxins are long-lived and extremely poisonous to some animals. Over the course of many years, the amount of dioxin in the environment could build up, Thornton claims, until it poses a major threat to our health and to the natural environment. Indeed, he says, there is evidence that dioxin is causing public health problems even at current levels.

There is much that is wrong with this reasoning. First, the amount of dioxin in air, water, soil, and our bodies isn’t rising. It’s fallen dramatically in the past two decades, and now rests at nearly pre-industrial levels.

Second, the Environmental Protection Agency (after some waffling six years ago) and the National Academy of Sciences both say there is no evidence that exposure to current levels of dioxin poses a threat to our health. Even studies of people exposed to extremely high amounts of dioxin find few or no health effects.

Third, natural sources of dioxin such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires send far more dioxin into the environment than do human activities. Among human sources of dioxin, outdoor burning of household garbage in barrels appears to be by far the largest, making it questionable whether further controls on factories would do much to improve the situation. The very fact that we still don’t know where most dioxin comes from or where it goes tells us that this is a poorly understood and mainly theoretical problem.

Fourth, the risks to human health caused by banning chlorine would far outweigh whatever small risk continued use of chlorine might pose. The alternatives to chlorine for disinfecting water, making life-saving drugs, and making our cars and homes durable and comfortable all would impose significant health risks and costs on us as consumers. In some cases, doing without chlorine would mean pain, suffering, and even death.

You won’t find these facts presented in Pandora’s Poison because its author has bigger fish to fry. Joe Thornton worked for the radical environmental group Greenpeace until shortly before this book was released. Greenpeace is widely known for exaggerating environmental problems in order to raise money. It also has an ideological agenda: it is fiercely anti-corporation and anti-free enterprise.

Thornton is true to his former employer’s biases. He sees the evil hand of big corporations behind every study that comes down on the side of chlorine’s safety. He calls for creation of a “citizens commission” to take over the entire chlorine industry and gradually put it out of business. Lessons learned from banning chlorine, in Thornton’s world, would then be applied to phasing out nuclear power, logging, and a long list of other industries.

In 1990, Greenpeace generated an amazing 43 million pieces of junk mail claiming it needed your money to “save the planet.” In 1998 it raised $118 million. Greenpeace, in short, profits from spreading fear.

Unfortunately, Greenpeace is able to fool most of the people, most of the time. At the end of 1998, it had $88 million in its bank accounts. That’s quite a lot for an organization that makes its living condemning “profit-driven big corporations.”

Whatever you think of capitalism, you should not trust this book or its author to tell you what to think about chlorine. No less than your health and safety are at stake.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, the publisher of Environment & Climate News, and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism.