Safer handling of chemicals

RECENT incidents involving the release or leakage of potentially dangerous substances should spur caution in handling toxic and volatile chemicals as well as greater individual, corporate, and governmental efforts to prevent such occurrences. Twice within nine months there have been toxic leaks at Union Carbide plants -- in Bhopal, India, last December and at Institute, W.Va., Aug. 11.

Highway and rail accidents involving toxic and flammable cargoes continue to make news: On Monday, Aug. 12, a leaky tank truck on the Capital Beltway near Washington, D.C.; a derailed freight train in Arizona, and puncture of a storage tank by a forklift truck at a plant in New Jersey all caused release and/or burning of toxic chemicals. In each case timely response by local officials prevented major injuries. The Union Carbide chemical leaks had far more serious consequences. They involve questions of corporation responsibility that will eventually be settled by courts and legislative bodies.

In recent years many law-enforcement and other agencies at the local and state levels have become more alert to the hazards involved in manufacturing and transporting hazardous materials. Some communities have banned trucks carrying dangerous substances from busy streets and residential areas. But response to the challenge presented by hazardous substances is still mainly reactive -- after an incident occurs. The number of highway incidents has declined in recent years, but, as the incidents cited

above show, the situation is still far from satisfactory.

Much attention has been focused, with limited success so far, on cleaning up old toxic waste dumps and finding sites for disposal of substances ranging from spent nuclear fuel to crankcase oil. Meanwhile, the industries that provide ``better living through chemistry'' continue to develop and manufacture products that present obvious or hidden hazards.

Organizations, such as consumer groups and labor unions, working to enhance protection of workers and the general public from harmful substances continue to be frustrated by bureaucratic delays, corporate resistance, and -- in budget-pinching times -- a government that makes decisions about protecting the public from environmental hazards on a cost-benefit basis.

Individuals owe it to themselves, their families, and their communities to become better informed about what substances and products are being manufactured, transported, and used in their locales. Companies, as well as government agencies, should make a greater effort to inform people about the unseen hazards and potentional for environmental damage in products commonly used -- from chemical fertilizers to plastic chairs. If more of us were aware of the byproducts of manufacturing and the effects of dis posal of a lot of the man-made products we use, we just might decide we could do without many of them.

It is not right to accept -- through ignorance or on some sort of cost-benefit basis -- a certain number of casualties as the price for the rewards of industrialization. The United States and other nations can do a better job of overseeing the production and handling of potentially harmful substances.

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