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16 January 1997 Edition

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Toxic Meltdown

Those responsible for protecting the environment are siding with the chemical industry, says Robert Allen


Six years ago the good people of Derry and Donegal with help from their friends in the rest of the 32 Counties emphatically told industry and government (in Dublin and Westminster) what they thought of toxic pollution.

Du Pont's attempts to build a toxic waste incinerator in their Maydown factory were thwarted by a campaign that displayed genuine empowerment from all communities in Ireland. A similar successful campaign throughout 1995 prevented the siting of a toxic incinerator in the Ringsend district of Dublin.

But a few weeks ago the people who have been entrusted with the protection of the Irish environment indicated that they are loyal servants to the chemical industry and the 26 County state's unashamed industrial policy. They made a mockery of the people who stood out against toxic pollution in Ireland.

Neil O'Brien, was the inspector entrusted with the community's appeal to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) over Syntex's (formerly Roche Ireland) licence to operate a polluting toxic burner.

And do you know what he had to say about TCDD (otherwise known as dioxin) - the most poisonous synthetic chemical ever produced? He said he couldn't accept the evidence in the USEPA's reassessment of dioxin because their 1994 report was a review draft and could not be cited. As an example of Irish state stonewalling and hyperbole this is the most disingenuous yet. The USEPA ``review draft'' is in fact an analysis of the published scientific data. There is nothing in it that Mr O'Brien and his colleagues at EPA headquarters in Johnstown Castle in Wexford would not find in a decent science and medical library. But he doesn't even need to go that far.

He could get the Irish embassy in the US to pop out to the bookshop and buy Arnold Schecter's 1994 book on `Dioxins and Health'.

He might also get the embassy staff to get him Theo Colborn's ``Chemically-Induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection'', published in 1992. The book has a paper by Richard Peterson and Robert Moore, Toxicologists at the University of Wisconsin, who discovered that dioxin does not just cause cancer, it acts like a persistent hormone at very low levels - levels similar to those presently being found in humans.

Now Mr O'Brien will probably say that Peterson and Moore did their experiments on rats and that humans are different. That's true. Tests have shown that a toxic chemical can knock out ninety-nine per cent of a rat's sperm and still have no effect on its ability to reproduce. That's because they generate ten times the amount of sperm they need to reproduce. The story is indeed different with humans who produce as little as two to four times the amount of sperm they need to reproduce - and already the human sperm count in the western world is down by fifty per cent in the last 50 years.

No, Mr O'Brien, it's about time you got serious about protecting the environment from these chemicals which are threatening our ability to reproduce by playing havoc with our fertility and our intelligence.

So let me tell you a story. Back in the dark 50s a woman who lived beside a chemical factory suffered several miscarriages and stillbirths. By the time her childbearing days were over she had lost half her family. At the time the medical peolpe could not explain why this woman had lost so many children and it seemed they did not care. The GP who arrived to deliver one child, and found instead a deformed foetus, instructed the father to wrap the baby which had half its brain missing in a newspaper and burn it on the open fire - an order the shocked man dutifully obeyed.

That synthetic chemicals have the ability to permanently damage the foetus is now established - no matter what you might think, Mr O'Brien. Back in the dark 50s the medical profession could probably be excused their ignorance. With thousands of scientific papers published on the impact of man-made chemicals on the fertility and intelligence of wildlife and humans, the excuses are now wearing fairly thin.

  • It's not enough that each year thousands of mice and rats and guinea pigs are injected with these chemicals just to see if they do actually damage organs, alter reproductive patterns, cause infertility and disrupt intelligence - and then make the argument that humans are different from animals. Why experiment with animals in the first place, especially as mice can't tell their torturers that they are suffering from depression, nausea and headaches - the first signs of chemical sensitivity?
  • It's not enough that thousands of species all over the planet are being affected by chemicals made by mankind, to the extent that many species are dying out.
  • It's not enough to point to the chemical disasters of the past 50 years and their impact on workers and communities.
  • It's not enough to simply wheel out the stats - that in the decades since 1940 the production of synthetic chemicals has increased 350 times or that the global production of carbon-based chemicals is now worth £1740billion.
  • It's not enough to wait until scientists have studied the toxicity of each chemical, when you discover that the chemical industry introduces about 1,000 new chemicals each year without a thought about their impact on the planet and its species.
  • Whether you like it or not Mr O'Brien, Irish communities are beginning to educate themselves about the chemicals that are slowly reducing our intelligence levels and altering our ability to reproduce.

And Mr O'Brien, whether you want to believe it or not, we now live in a toxic world - a world with its biological diversity in the first phase of meltdown.

•Robert Allen is a journalist specialising in environmental issues. He is the author of Guests of the Nation, a book about multinational companies in Ireland.
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