There is not much that stirs the lobbying loins of an eco-activist more than industrial uses of organic chlorine. From Rachel Carson's assault on the pesticide DDT in the 1960s to today's attack on PVC plastics in toys, chlorine-bashing has never been far away from environmentalist campaigns. And to be sure elemental chlorine is a caustic gas, a fact I can attest to after inhaling a minuscule quantity in an experimental accident many years ago. But chlorine in compounds is far safer and has saved millions of lives.
Unfortunately, recent legislation in Austria and likely legislation in other EU countries ignores the benefits of chlorine compounds. How attitudes have changed. Back in 1948 when Paul Mueller won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the pesticide properties of DDT, it was hailed as a miracle. It saved millions of lives by eradicating malaria and typhus from many parts of the world. Indeed, the numerous other inventions based upon chlorine chemistry, including substances like PVC plastics, were then considered to be of huge benefit to society. In the past two decades, the tables have turned on science in general and chlorine in particular. Although chlorine is used in over 60% of industrial processes, groups like Greenpeace are campaigning to end the use of organic chlorine. The most recent target is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in raincoats, plastic bags and children's toys and many other everyday products.
Last week the Austrian Government announced that it would ban PVC toys likely to be placed in the mouths of small children. According to government officials a decree will be issued later this month and measures will come into force before the end of the year. Imports, retailing and advertising of affected products will be prohibited.
Austria's move follows a recent recommendation of the European Commission, which called on EU member states to take regulatory action on PVC toys containing phthalates (chemicals added to PVC to soften it) if they could demonstrate a health risk. The Commission stopped short of accepting the request of Emma Bonino, the consumer affairs commissioner, for an EU-wide ban on PVC pthalates. Austria is the first EU country to put a ban in place. According to one MEP, who wished to remain anonymous, it was done swiftly so that Austria, currently holding the EU Presidency, could show leadership on environmental issues. Two other EU countries--Denmark and Sweden--are also on the way to similar bans.
One Greenpeace representative has remarked that "PVC is a poisonous plastic--replacing phthalates won't solve that problem." This statement shows that Greenpeace, which has applied much of the pressure for the pthalate ban, is really targeting PVC, and ultimately chlorine.
But, according to a report by the Weinberg Group, a Brussels-based scientific consultancy, pthalates are not harmful at normal doses, and probably not at even vast doses. Professor Christopher Rappe, an adviser to the EU and World Health Organization, considers PVC "a safe material." In fact, there is no real evidence that either pthalates or PVC are harmful at all.
Yet Greenpeace has even attacked New Labour's cherished Millennium Dome, saying it must not contain PVC. As usual, it got its way; PVC is being replaced with PTFE (the coating on frying pans). Greenpeace claimed this as a victory, but more than 4 times as much chlorine is used to produce PTFE as PVC. Furthermore, the original German contractor Koch Hightex is suing the New Millennium Experience company for £3.5m (pounds) in damages following the change in specification.
The British Industry Minister John Battle had to defend the U-turn by explaining that a PTFE-based material would last longer than a PVC-based one, and hence was the sensible choice. But the decision to change was only made after the Greenpeace campaign, and months after the original specifications, leading one to be skeptical of these claims. Like the Brent Spar fiasco before it, the taxpayer will again eventually pay for a groundless Greenpeace campaign. People who care about sound science have to start fighting back. The anti-chlorine activists alarmingly claim that "It's either chlorine or us." Chlorine-based products and processes are essential to modern life. Technology-fearing environmentalists are not. The choice should be clear.