Beware the excessive fear of toxic chemicals

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Excessive fear of toxic chemicals has swept through the news media and into US public thinking since the tragedy at Bhopal, India. That fear needs to be held in check by a realistic appreciation of the public risk, lest overreaction and needlessly punitive regulations stifle an essential basic industry. How frightening, for example, modern daily living would seem if you overreacted to the warning labels on common household products. Washing the dishes involves chemicals dangerous to eyes and skin. Household ammonia solutions emit a familiar toxic gas. This is to say nothing of what happens when laundry detergents and bleaches enter a septic tank. They give rise to pollutants high on the Environmental Protection Agency's hit list. When you put fuel in a car, there's a warning on the pump against breathing the gasoline vapors.

It's enough to make one seek the sanctuary of a nice, safe chemical plant where monitoring instruments, automatic controls, and trained personnel generally keep health risks to a low minimum -- Bhopal notwithstanding.

Why then, if we live with and safely use so many ``dangerous'' chemicals, has public fear of the chemical industry reached a pitch where the industry itself fears for its future? It would seem that the familiar copper pot cleaners, toilet bowl disinfectants, or quick-setting glues are not perceived in the same light as the mysterious ``chemicals'' that circulate through the awesome piping and retorts of the public conception of a chemical plant. The fact that the chemical industry handles hazardous materials with such skill and care that it has the best industrial safety record of any major industry in the US seems overlooked.

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The chemical industry is important to the world. It is a powerful economic engine and source of many essential products. In the United States, for example, its $200 billion-a-year activity employs more than a million people and outcompetes other countries in international trade. Were overreaction to public fear to cause Congress or local legislatures to hobble chemical manufacturers with excessive restrictions, the United States would, economically speaking, shoot itself in the foot.

Leaders in the chemical industry have been so concerned that this might happen that, even before Bhopal, chairmen and chief executive officers of major chemical companies such as Dow or Exxon Chemicals have ``gone public'' with a campaign to ensure plant safety as a way to convince the public that any risk is minimal. They have sent a message to their subordinates and their colleagues that the public concern with safety is also a top-priority concern of their companies. They are no more tolerant of dangerous toxic waste dumps than is Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth.

Some of these senior executives have joined personally with environmentalists in programs to deal with toxic waste sites and other chemically related environmental problems. Members of the Chemical Manufacturers Association have organized a Clean Sites program with environmental groups to bring the expertise of the industry to bear on the problem and to add muscle in lobbying Congress for a more effective Superfund program. And, reversing a long-held position, industry leaders urged Congress last month to enact stricter uniform controls on emissions from chemical plants.

These and other steps being taken may not satisfy the industry's critics or quickly calm public fear. But they are earnest and represent a high-priority effort on the part of many industry experts and executives. The sincerity of these industry leaders is enforced by the realization that they have no choice. They believe that they must work with legislators, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens to ensure that their industry is safe and perceived to be safe. They are convinced that, otherwise, the chemical industry faces a bleak future.

Consider the related area of vaccines. Here the public-perception problem seems to be not so much one of fear as it is the public's failure to face up to the risk side of the risk-benefit equation. Various types of vaccination are not only recommended by health specialists, they often are mandated by law, especially for children. Yet the experts warn that, out of millions vaccinated, a few dozen or few hundred children (depending on the vaccine) are likely to have serious reactions. Multimillion-dollar liability awards in such cases have become so common that vaccine manufacturers run a new kind of risk: bankruptcy.

The result is a growing shortage of key vaccines as manufacturers curtail or cease production. Concerned about a public-health disaster, the Reagan administration plans to seek limits on manufacturer liability. Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida has introduced legislation to set up a ``no fault'' compensation program.

With vaccines, public responsibility is obvious. The public has mandated the use of vaccines. It cannot, then, hold vaccine producers strictly liable for the inevitable risk in vaccine use (as opposed to faulty products or safety violations) without destroying the vaccine industry. The public as a whole must assume that liability.

Likewise, this is no time for the press or Congress to take an adversarial position with chemical manufacturers -- although they should maintain a tough-minded scrutiny. It is a time to cooperate with those in the industry -- often at its highest levels -- who want to develop new, more effective standards of chemical safety and see that they are strictly enforced. This is not an ``us'' vs. ``them'' situation. The chemical industry is too basic to be viewed in that light. This is a situation where the interests of the public and the industry are one. In the US, there is only ``us'' -- the people as a whole, including the people in the industry -- grappling with a national challenge that affects everyone.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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