Why should progress be putrid?

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

Last time I wrote about the cycle of poison, where one toxic substance is replaced with another, equally toxic, one. This cycle, I wrote, is exactly like the modern economy where business is profitable only when it comes up with profitable solutions for old problems. It is a toxic tango, deadly for our health and environment. It defies the logic of progress.

That's why we desperately need a global compact on product impact assessment and liability. Today, the global ecological regulatory framework does not penalise the producer if his product is dangerous or toxic. Instead, it actually rewards him by providing another lucrative market for substitutes.

International agreements do not even begin to address the principle of liability and compensation - holding polluters liable to pay damages. Take the Montreal Protocol. Such are its terms that industries have been rewarded -- many times over -- for producing chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (cfcs), which threatened the ozone layer. Big cfc manufacturers like Du Pont were gifted huge new markets for alternative chemicals they produced and the convention encouraged. The fact that one of these 'alternatives' -- hfc-134a -- could now be banned for its climate change potential has no material implications for the company marketing the chemical. The race to find the environment-friendly alternative chemical is not just never-ending, but also eternally profitable. In the Montreal Protocol itself, more and more chemicals are being added to the phase-out list, but not once has the question of holding the manufacturer liable been raised, let alone discussed.

It is the same with pesticides. In 1939, Paul Muller of the Swiss based Geigy Pharmaceuticals discovered how effective Dichloro diphenyl trichloethane (ddt) was as an insecticide. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize even as Charles Broley, a Canadian banker, found that the pesticide sprayed along the coast to control mosquitoes was the cause of the decline of the bald-headed eagle. By 1972, ddt's dangers were known and it was banned in the us.

But markets simply shifted to more lucrative ventures. On the one hand industry profited by finding substitutes, often more toxic. On the other, they increased exports of ddt and many other banned chemicals to developing countries. Journalists David Weir and Mark Schapiro in their book, Circle of Poison, show that in the 1980s, over 25 per cent of the pesticides exported from the us were banned there.

Manufacturing, too, grew in developing countries, along with consumption. But new problems emerged. By the 1990s pesticides sprayed in developing countries were making their way back to the industrialised world. The poison had come full circle. The return route was multiple. One such route was food import. In 1996 chlordane -- banned in the us but exported by its corporations -- was found in carrots imported from Mexico. The second route was via the oceans and atmosphere. Pesticides sprayed in the developing world were found in the waters of even the remote polar regions of the world.

Global action has been multi-pronged. Firstly, the world community has negotiated the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Under this, 12 organochlorine pesticides and industrial chemicals have been targeted for global ban. A committee reviews and targets more of these pollutants. Secondly, the Rotterdam convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade was adopted. The convention enables countries to express their "prior informed consent" before receiving imports of a specified list of hazardous and banned chemicals. Again, a list - 27 to begin with and 4 added in the last few years.

But the chain remains unbroken. In India, for instance, toxic organochlorine aldrin was banned. It was replaced by another insecticide, chlorpyrifos . This insecticide was found in most samples of bottled water the Centre for Science and Environment recently analysed (see: Down To Earth, vol 11, no 18; February 15, 2003). It is under urgent review the world over because of its neuroteratogenic properties. But not in India.

In India, the government does not even think it just or fit to disclose the known toxicity of the chemicals registered by the Central Insecticides Board. Science and silence go hand in hand in a conspiracy that thrills the industry-government combine.

The problem, scientists will tell you, is that it is impossible to know everything about a product when it is introduced. The one option is to invest in science for ecological security, so that we stay ahead of nasty environmental surprises. Environmental assessment of products, and not just projects, must be mandatory and more stringent.

But much more important is to jump ahead. To break the cycle. To invent and innovate in products outside the toxicity treadmill. But for this new-generation of products, industry will need less greed and more foresight.

It will also need the stick of regulation. One key issue is to build a strong liability regime so that the manufacturer is warned of the precautions needed to invent products that could be profitable in the short-run and toxic in the long-run. This liability regime will force manufacturers to take life-time responsibility and invest in sustainability.

Otherwise, progress will just be putrid.

-- Sunita Narain

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