DIOXIN S I N FRANCE
In addition, cancers promoted by this toxic compound typically take 20 to 25 years to declare themselves, which might as well be eternity for the elected officials in charge of public health. Nevertheless, the scandals of recent years that have involved high officials - such as the cases of AIDS-contaminated blood used in transfusions - have at least one positive aspect: politicians now know they can be put behind bars i f it can be proven that they failed to act on illnesses that are not the result of fate but of corporate neglect.
French politicians have responded to this new political climate by speaking cautiously - in public - about taking danger-
Imagine the Interior Minister announcing that on a certain designated day, the police will check all drivers in the country for their alcohol intake. They do so, find no drunk drivers, and conclude that no one ever drinks and drives. Dioxin pollution measurement is the equivalent of this.
ous health risks. Recently, Environment Minister Dominique Voynet expressed caution about a proposed new incinerator in eastern France. " I don't want to be sued one day by someone who has developed cancer,"6 she said, frankly.
Pollutio n Propagand a Despite such 'caution' though, the government's incinerator programme goes on. In order to reconcile these two extreme positions - "it could kill people but I want to develop it" - the dioxin lobby's misinformation campaign has taken new, more subtle forms. Far from playing down the risks, which is becoming difficult at a time when even the WHO admits that dioxin is dangerous, we have now reached phase two of the PR battle, which could be summed up as follows: "True, it's dangerous, but the risk is manageable." The industry readily admits today that incinerators can be polluting. At the same time, it assures us that the new generation of burners that should be built as soon as possible will see the emergence of "clean incineration". Their propaganda goes as far as actually claiming that the air going out of the smokestack will even be purer than ambient air, thanks to new filtration systems.7
The French Environment Ministry is currently trying to claim that dioxin emissions from domestic waste incinerators in France are falling dramatically. This claim is based on an array of lies. The first of them is the pretence that filters make pollution disappear. Most of the time, filters stop only one part of the pollutants, and the more efficient they are, the more pollution they accumulate that will have to be dealt with some other way. This usually means mixing the trapped dioxins with cement in order to dump them in a hazardous waste landfill.
At the same time, another piece of misinformation is heard. 'Bottom ash' - the remains of the domestic waste burned by the incinerator - has always been acknowledged as being toxic, especially given its heavy metal content. France's waste incinerators produce an estimated 3 million tons of bottom ash a year.8 To dispose of such huge amounts in dumps would incur large expenses. The solution found by the industry is as simple as it is revolting: bottom ash has been 'detoxified' by a piece of legislation that allows it to be used in road construction. Although it is now supposed to be an inert material, this law nevertheless forbids any use "within a 30-metre distance from any source of water".9
Shak y Statistic s A brief look at the Environment Ministry's method of calculating dioxin pollution makes a mockery of the statistics it regularly produces to 'measure' the levels of pollution from incinerators. Imagine the Interior Minister announcing that on a certain designated day, the police will check all drivers in the country for their alcohol intake. They do so, find no drunk drivers, and conclude that no one ever drinks and drives. Dioxin pollution measurement is the equivalent of this. Incinerator operators are told beforehand that they will be inspected for dioxin emissions on a certain date - or are even allowed to set that date themselves. This practice violates the administration's own principle of "unannounced control" - "controle inopine" which is supposed to form the basis of its activities.
Moreover, dioxin emissions cannot be monitored on a continuous basis, as it is "too expensive" for the government to fund. So the government asks for only one test per year, and only on the biggest incinerators. This operation lasts between three and six hours, which means that the results heralded by the French Environment Ministry represent for each incinerator at best six hours out of 8,000 hours of operation per year.
Furthermore, a key obstacle remains the stance of the packaging industry. A major user of waste incinerators, packaging already constitutes a third of the weight and half the volume of French domestic waste. In 1991, then Environment Minister Brice Lalonde asked Antoine Riboud to write a report on the subject. Mr. Riboud happened to be one of the most powerful packaging industry CEOs in France and beyond. The Environment Minister might as well have asked the wolf to guard the sheep.
The result was not too surprising. Mr. Riboud explained that disposal was better than reuse or recycling, and "any change [towards reuse! would imply considerable investments without economic profitability. It is obvious that the French agro-food industry has better things to do."10
The French dioxin debate will no doubt continue to mobilise the environmental movement as well as the public relations firms working for the industry. The WTO's recent lowering of allowable limits of dioxin pollution (see Ryder in this issue) should, in theory, lead to a moratorium on the building of new burners. But it is clear that this kind of political move will not take place in the face of scientific evidence alone - it will also need a strong environmental movement to keep up the pressure. And most of all, it will be essential for the Green movement to put dioxin back in its more general context. Although a real threat by itself, dioxin must be fought because it represents the chemical warfare led by humankind against Nature and itself.C
Pierre-Emmanual Neurohr is Director of the National Centre for Independent Information on Waste (CNIID) in Paris.
References: 1. Dioxin and its analogues', French Academy of Sciences, Editions Lavoisier,
September 1994. 2. 'Determination of PCDDs and PCDFs in meat samples', Ergo orschungsgesellschaft, CNIID, 1998, and 'Dioxines a tous les repas', CNIID, May 1999. 3. One picogram (pg) is a millionth of a millionth of a gram. 4. Dioxines, tous contamines', Que Choisir, June 1998. 5. Recommandation dioxines, Comite de la prevention et de la precaution,
April 1998. 6. Quand Mme Voynet accuse M . Chevenement d'infraction a la loi, Le Monde, , June
23rd, 1999. 7. Heard during discussions at a conference organised by Ademe, an agency under the
Environment Ministry's power. 8. Utilisation des machefers d'incineration d'ordures menageres en technique routiere',
Setra, 1997. 9. Circulaire DPPR du 9 mai 1994 10. Emballage et environnement, Antoine Riboud, 1991
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999 Reviews
Fiddling while Rome burns
Negotiating for a Sustainable Future
God's Last Offer
GOD'S LAST OFFER - NEGOTIATING
FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
by Ed Ayres, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York,
1999, 357pp, £14.99, ISBN 1 56858 125 4
Ed Ayres is the Editorial Director of the WorldWatch Institute and one of America's most prolific writers on environmental issues. His latest book is a wake-up call to all who are unaware, or in denial, of the fact that the Earth is facing some of the most profound and devastating changes since the dawn of human life. With solid underpinnings of scientific data, the author describes four destructive phenomena now impacting our planet and their synergistic relationship - each adding fuel to the others in an apocalyptic crescendo:
• The surge in climatic disturbances that drove 300 million people from their homes in 1998, including more than 2,000 tornadoes in the US, 70,000 tropical fires and devastating floods in 54 countries.
• The fastest biological mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs: from one species per year a few decades ago to many thousand species per year today.
• The consumption of finite resources: the nett forested area of the Earth is shrinking by the size of two football fields every second, and we use up as much fossil fuel in one day as was created in 10,000 years. • The number of mouths to feed, which
has grown as much in the last ten years as in the 10,000 years prior to the industrial revolution. Nett world population now increases as much in three days as in the average century of early human history.
These four phenomena are illustrated with graphs showing the 'spikes' for carbon dioxide emissions, bio-extinction, human consumption and population respectively. They are so similar that their inter-relation becomes obvious even to those who have been unaware of any threat to their accustomed lifestyle, or who refuse to accept the fact that we face a crisis of unprecedented severity. With each passing month, the four spikes become more entangled by feedback loops through which they aggravate and exacerbate each other.
Ayres also identifies some of the societal forces that perpetuate public indifference:
• Our faith in technology has become a panacea for all our problems. He reminds the reader that technology has never been anything but a tool - an extension of those faculties we already possess - and says that we must look beyond technology for a solution to our human predicament. He dismisses as "a colossal foolishness" the notion that all we need to do to fix our broken educational system is to put more computers in every classroom. It is "an extension of the doctrine espoused by the World Bank" that a proliferation of power plants, super-highways and other high-tech infrastructure would liberate Third World countries, whereas in many cases they have resulted only in poverty.
• The information explosion has become information obliteration, as our knowledge becomes increasingly fragmented, and we are inundated by self-serving corporate disinformation.
• Each day we are more disconnected from the physical world, as 'virtual reality' and the make-believe world of entertainment media become substitutes for real-life experiences. In the process, the distinction between fame and
infamy has been effectively obliterated: media exposure has become the only yardstick for measuring success.
• Roman emperors knew that the best way to keep their subjects docile was to satisfy their appetite for bread and circuses. For many in today s high-tech world, the PC has become the Panem et Circenses of choice. In their rush to escape reality, others wrap themselves in the comforting blanket of a druginduced stupor, or seek refuge in a fundamentalist religion.
• The growth of a global shadow economy, which is accountable neither to any national government nor to future generations for its depletion of resources and its degradation of our biosphere. Ayres' most scathing criticism is reserved for traditional economists and bureaucrats who refuse to factor in the ecological costs in the price of a product - potentially a catastrophic blind spot in conventional accounting.
The question is - can we learn from our mistakes? In a chapter entitled 'Ambushes of the past' the author gives a brief run-down of past civilisations that have succumbed - not to superior military might, but to corrosive forces from within. The Sumerian, Tehuacan, Mayan, Roman and Indus civilisations all disintegrated because of abuse and overuse of the natural resources which sustained them for centuries. A microcosm of this phenomenon, repeated throughout human history with a regularity which in retrospect seems preordained, is the demise of the culture that lasted for a millennium on Easter Island. Once forested and fertile, it was colonised by Polynesians, who established a thriving society, epitomised by some 600 giant stone figures erected at the peak of its civilisation. But as all the trees were felled to provide building material for houses and boats, firewood and logs for transporting the massive effigies to their final resting places, the soil eroded, and the population eventually shrank to a pitiful handful of cavedwelling cannibals, the last of whom
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999