Toxics Victories

Page - March 29, 2010
Toxic chemicals in our environment threaten our rivers and lakes, our air, land and oceans, and ultimately ourselves and our future. Greenpeace has been leading the way toward a toxic-free future for decades.

House Victory

Cities Safe from Toxic Cargo

In the years since 9/11, our nation's most populated cities have been vulnerable to terrorist attacks with the potential to kill or injure more than 100,000 people. That's because freight trains carrying toxic gases, such as chlorine, have continued to travel through cities like Washington D.C. In the event of an attack or an accident, these ultra-toxic airborne chemicals have the potential to kill 100 people per second, putting up to 100,000 people at risk in the first half-hour.

In 2007, after six years of working on chemical security, President Bush signed an important bill into law. As part of its 9/11 legislation, Congress approved an amendment that will increase public safety by re-routing ultra-toxic rail cargo around densely populated areas.

What are Hazardous Rail Cargoes?

Our nation's railways connect thousands of U.S. chemical facilities. As a result, the majority of ultra-toxic chemicals transported in this country are done so by train. One Government Accountability Office report stated that 95 percent of the most dangerous chemicals are shipped by rail. Yet, these poison gases represent only 0.3 percent of the freight rail business. According to the Argonne National Laboratories, chlorine gas accounts for the majority of risk.

90-Ton Bull's-Eyes

Freight trains are among the most vulnerable domestic targets to terrorist attacks. In 2003, an FBI specialist in weapons of mass destruction warned, "… it's far easier to attack a rail car full of toxic industrial chemicals than it is to compromise the security of a military base and obtain these materials."

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory estimates that more than 100,000 people could be killed or injured within the first 30 minutes of a terrorist attack on one rail car of hazardous chemicals passing through a major city such as Washington, D.C., warning that, "lethally exposed people can die at the rate of 100 per second."

The widespread presence of graffiti on freight trains, including markings on 90-ton railroad tank cars is proof of the ease with which they can be accessed.

Preventing Tragedy

Re-routing the transport of extremely hazardous cargo is one of the first and most effective steps we can take to immediately reduce opportunities for terrorists by eliminating their targets. This legislation will empower cities to demand that railroads re-route hazardous materials so we don't have 90-ton bull's-eyes rolling down the tracks through densely populated communities.

The next step for Congress should be the enactment of legislation requiring chemical plants to use safer chemicals or processes so that large quantities of poison gas won't need to be shipped. 

Toys Get Safe

In 2008 President Bush signed into law national product-safety legislation. The new law ensures that toys and child-care products will be free from brain-damaging materials like lead and several types of phthalates. The legislation will cover products made for children up to 12 years of age, ranging from baby teethers to Barbie dolls.

This issue had a large amount of public support, with more than 8,000 Greenpeace activists taking action and writing their members of Congress. The win came despite heavy lobbying by ExxonMobil who manufactures phthalates.

Since 1996 Greenpeace has led global campaigns to eliminate the use of these chemicals in toys and other consumer products. We were the first organization to expose that vinyl toys contained toxic chemicals after testing a wide range of children's products.

As a result of our work, in 1999 the European Union (EU) adopted a ban of phthalates in young children's teethers, while the U.S. chose to not take action.

In order to address these toxic hazards, Congress must take a bigger step by overhauling U.S. chemical policy. Several states are beginning to do this and in 2007 the EU adopted a new chemicals policy that prohibits the marketing of chemicals in products that have not been fully tested for their health effects. Congress should finish the job and enact comprehensive reform of U.S. chemical policy to eliminate these toxic hazards in products and require the use of safer substitutes that will protect our families.

But it's not just the toys that pose a hazard, it's also the packaging. In 2007, we had another win when Target Corporation agreed to reduce its use of PVC in packaging and children's products, such as lunch boxes, bibs, shower curtains and fashion accessories.

PVC is made with vinyl chloride, which the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a human carcinogen. Another concern with vinyl products is they may contain lead, which can pose a problem if the plastic deteriorates or children put the products in their mouths.

PVC is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics. Since safer alternatives are available for virtually all uses of PVC, it is possible to replace all uses of (and eventually phase out) this poison plastic.

We should be able to trust industry not to produce dangerous chemicals and manufacturers not to use them. However if you want to be absolutely sure that the toys you buy are safe, avoid anything containing PVC or vinyl because laws are still not tight enough on these kinds of plastics.

Oceans Not a Dumping Ground

Many companies seem to think that the oceans are its personal dumping ground. Toxic-laden cargo are often expected to just be swallowed up by the sea or dumped on developing countries with no consequences. Fortunately, by shining a light on the outrageous plans, we are able to force the ships back to their country of origin where the waste can be disposed of responsibly.

Some of the worst offenders include:

  • In 2006, Estonia launched an investigation into the practices of the cargo ship, Probo Koala following three days of blockade by the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. It is the first official action against the ship, which poisoned thousands and killed eight in the Ivory Coast when it dumped a cargo of toxic waste that had been refused by the Netherlands.
  • Also in 2006, French President Chirac announced the recall of the asbestos-laden warship Clemenceau. Our peaceful direct actions, thousands of emails to Chirac, and an embarrassing international scandal left France with little choice but to abandon the misguided attempt to dump its toxic mess on India and bring the ship back to France.
  • In 2004 Greenpeace efforts to achieve tighter controls on the notorious ship breaking industry resulted in an international agreement to treat obsolete ships as waste. Treaty commitments by 163 nations were expected to increase demands for decontamination of ships prior to export to the principle shipbreaking countries of India, Bangladesh, and Turkey. 

However, toxic waste isn't confined to the oceans. We've also had successes combating land-based practices. Such as:

  • In 2005 officials in Buenos Aires announced plans to implement a zero waste policy after a campaign by Greenpeace in Argentina. Buenos Aires was the largest city at the time to have announced a zero waste plan.
  • In 2004 online activists in Japan halted the introduction of nonrecyclable and unreturnable plastic bottles from beer manufacture Asahi.
  • In 1994, Greenpeace actions exposed toxic waste trade from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries culminating in government negotiation of the Basel Convention banning this practice.

In our consumer-driven society, we must remember that it's not just how "stuff" is produced or what it is used for, but also what we do with it when we no longer want it.

Electronics Go Greener

The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year.

Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream because people are upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before.

We called on companies to reduce their e-waste by releasing a "Guide to Greener Electronics" back in 2006. The guide ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TV's and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change.

In response to seeing their company poorly ranked, many companies have committed to making green initiatives. They include:

  • In 2009 Philips announced a change in its recycling policy, taking responsibility for the cost of recycling its own products.
  • In 2007 Apple announced a phase-out of the most dangerous chemicals in its product line in response to our Webby-award winning online campaign and the thousands of Apple fans worldwide who took action. The "Green My Apple" campaign challenged Apple to become a green leader in addressing the electronic waste problem.
  • In 2006 Dell promised to remove the worst toxic chemicals from its products and Hewlett Packard committed to a phase-out plan for a range of hazardous chemicals in its products.
  • In 2005 Motorola, LG and Sony Ericsson announced plans to phase toxic chemicals out of its products. Also, health and body care companies L'Occitane, Melvitacosm, and Alqvimia dropped toxic chemicals from their products.
  • In 2004, Ford Europe announced a reversal of the decision to scrap its fleet of fuel efficient electric Th!nK City cars, and instead investigated sending them to eager customers in Norway.
  • Also in 2004 Samsung announced plans to phase out hazardous chemicals in its products.

Stockholm Convention Eliminates Dangerous Pollutants

In 2004, the Stockholm Convention came into force following years of lobbying by Greenpeace and other environmental organizations. A key feature of the Convention called for the elimination of all Persistent Organic Pollutants. They include intentionally produced chemicals, such as pesticides and PCBs, as well as byproducts such as cancer-causing dioxins that are released from industries that use chlorine and from waste incinerators.

The Stockholm Convention was adopted on May 23, 2001 in Stockholm, Sweden, after several years of negotiations, constantly undermined by the United States and its corporate interest. It's a global legally binding agreement outlawing the production, use and release of toxic substances.

The Stockholm Convention also aims to prohibit industries from inventing new POPs, introducing them in the marketplace or the recycling of POPs. This will prohibit the chemical industry from dumping new hazardous chemicals on the market and will force the industry to adopt the so-called substitution principle.

Greenpeace has been campaigning against POPs for years, and helped convince a major German publisher to go chlorine-free after Greenpeace produced a chlorine-free edition of magazine Der Spiegel in 1991.

The main challenge now for the Convention is its implementation. Instead of finding temporary loopholes, such as incineration when dealing with waste, it is far more cost-effective to go straight to the source of the problem and find a sustainable substitute. Every day more poisons are poured into our environment and bodies and the need for action is urgent.