Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Out of Control?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Out of Control?

Article excerpt

Are the chemical and allied industries, as one film currently being circulated puts it, "out of control"?

That's the charge being levied by some labor and environmental groups these days as they lobby for tougher regulatory controls on how these plants operate, what they must tell the public about hazards, what they must do to protect surrounding communities, and what they can discharge as waste.

"People are no longer willing to tell the companies, we trust you to do the right thing," warns Dr. Fred Millar of the Environmental Policy Institute. "That is not a credible position anymore."

In the not-so-distant past, most Americans enjoyed better living through chemistry with few questions asked. They were largely content to reap the benefits of the chemical revolution while paying little attention to the daunting complexities of gathering raw materials, processing them into thousands of products, and disposing of the waste.

But no industry as massive in size and as vital to our lives as the chemical industry can exist cloaked in invisibility. For the past two decades, the risks that the chemical industry poses to the public have inspired growing concern.

Chemical plants, despite the fact that many are sterling examples of on-the-job safety performance, still hold the potential for catastrophic disaster. Bhopal has forever branded that into the public consciousness.

While chemicals can wreak instant havoc, they can also affect our health in subtle, nearly invisible ways. Exposures to tiny quantities of many chemicals can result in cancer, birth defects, and other grave health effects.

The relative mystery surrounding how toxic chemicals affect people can invoke a special dread, argues Kai Erikson, a professor of sociology and American studies at Yale University. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, he asserts that the public may view radioactivity and toxic substances as" naturally loathsome, inherently insidious - horrors, like poison gas, that draw on something deeper in the human mind."

During the 1980s, plant walls became increasingly porous as government passed a series of new laws requiring information about chemicals and their health effects. SARA Title III and other statutes were enacted, requiring industry to police itself more strenuously and to share information with other parties so that they could protect themselves. …

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