Exporting poisons

Experience has taught Americans the critical importance of regulating the production, handling, and disposal of toxic substances in their own country. But are they as equally concerned about the potential dangers of the poisonous chemicals they ship abroad -- those, in particular, that find their way to developing countries where residents are not as apt to have the technical know-how and experience to determine the safety of such products?

This is a question that will assume increasing significance as the federal government moves to implement new "cradle to grave" controls over toxic substances in the US. Already US firms, watching new safety regulations push up the costs of manufacturing and handling toxic chemicals at home, are turning to third-world countries to market pesticides and other toxic products. In some cases, the chemical products being sent abroad are banned in the US as either ineffective or too dangerous. Most recently, some companies have started negotiating to dump hazardous wastes in developing nations where disposal is cheaper and unregulated. West Africa is viewed by industry as a prime target for such dumping. With the US Environmental Protection Agency on the verge of implementing stiff new dumping regulations in the US, industry offers reportedly have been made to officials in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal.

There can be no question that the dumping of toxic materials abroad to bypass stringent regulations at home is morally indefensible. The State Department is properly concerned about the impact such practices could have on US foreign relations. It is not hard to imagine a future backlash from third-world peoples outraged by what would certainly appear to them to be a callous disregard for their health and well-being. Already officials from some developing countries complain about becoming "the dumping ground of industrial antions." The United Nations Environment Program has issued similar warnings.

Toxic wastes are only a small part of the problem, however. News reports in 1978 disclosed, for instance, that chemically treated children's garments, banned in the US as potentially harmful, were being shipped to various parts of the world to be sold. Also, pesticides the US Government considered too dangerous to be sold in the US were being marketed abroad. One such made-in-America pesticide exported to Egypt was blamed for killing farm animals and causing illness among some farm families.

Even now, according to lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council, US aerosol sprays which are kept out of US stores because they are considered a threat to the earth's protective ozone layer are being exported to Latin America , where fluorocarbon levels in the atmosphere are said to be increasing -- even while they are being lowered in the US. A more incongruous situation can hardly be imagined.

The need for government intervention is all too evident. The US has no overall coherent policy on toxic exports. The Carter administration two years ago recognized that Washington needed to assume greater responsibility in this area. It responded to reports such as those cited above by creating an interagency task force to develop a uniform approach to the problem. But the task force has since bogged down in disputes between Commerce and Treasury Department representatives on the one hand, who resist any restrictions that would hamper efforts to increase America's flagging exports, and State Department officials, consumer representatives, and environmentalists on the other, anxious to see more curbs placed on toxic exports.

Clearly the US Government ought to recognize its moral obligation to provide protection for the recipients of America's dangerous cargoes, and it should start by moving quickly to establish effective and comprehensive regulations for exporting toxic wastes. Washington currently has virtually no say at all over the shipment of wastes. The US, of course, cannot impose its environmental and health and safety standards on other nations. But at the very least, exporters should be required to notify the US Government of any shipments abroad of poisonous substances. Washington, in turn, ought to take far more seriously its obligation to alert recipients to the potential risks involved. At a minimum, nations hould be told if they are receiving a product banned in the US and why the product could be harmful. More stringent measures, including the barring of exports in certain high-risk categories, ought also to be considered.

Most such steps do not require legislation but could be accomplished immediately by executive order. The White House task Force should stop its bickering and get on with the important task of ensuring that America's environmental progress is not made at the expense of its third-world neighbors. Exporters themselves could help, too, by shouldering more of the responsibility for seeing to it that the image of the "ugly American" is not revived.

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