Meet Your Enemy

OVER THE PAST several years, hazardous chemicals have become one of the hottest and most politically toxic issues in state and national government. After the shock of Love Canal and the Times Beach "metrocide," it didn't take long for people to figure out that chemicals that can poison a dump site probably aren't too healthful to work with. Concerned workers and environmentalists around the country began to draft "Right to Know" legislation requiring employers to provide information on any hazardous materials used in their firms.

Two such bills are currently before the Massachusetts legislature, but only one of them merits passage. The first measure, introduced this spring by a coalition of environmental and labor groups, requires employers to label all toxic substances in the workplace and provide information about these chemicals to employees and community members. That bill won Senate approval, but is currently stalled in the House while moderates try to hammer out a compromise with industry, which predictably opposes the legislation. Faced with growing support for such measures, however, industry proponents figured some legislation was inevitable, and introduced a watered-down version of the proposed law.

The original bill designates as hazardous 50,000 chemicals on a list of toxic substances issued by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. In addition to labeling these chemicals, employers would have to sponsor annual teach-ins for workers about the health risks related to the materials and offer similar information to local citizen on request. But industry representatives charge the law would be expensive and unwieldy to implement. Alternately, they have proposed using a smaller list, that includes only 400 toxic materials, and providing information only to workers, not community members.

Labor and environmental leaders rightly reject these alterations. They say that the 400 most hazardous substances form only the tip of a toxic ice burg. They claim the proposed legislation is not unreasonable since employers would only have to supply standard information on hazardous chemicals--information that is already required by the federal government and often provided by chemical companies to firms that use their products. Furthermore, advocates of the more stringent bill argue that the law will not be unduly expensive to regulate since it only mandates enforcement in response to a complaint.

More important, the proposed law does not require that businesses stop using toxic materials, simply that it alert employees to their presence in the workplace.

WHAT REALLY CONCERNS employees and chemical companies is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As citizens realize the extent to which they are exposed to hazardous materials and the medical dangers of this exposure, pressure will undoubtedly mount for stricter regulation of toxic chemicals. The implicit, if not the stated, aim of the Right to Know legislation is not knowledge for knowledge's sake, but the power to mandate a safe work environment. Simply knowing that the chemicals he handles each day are carcinogens is no great boon to a worker who cannot afford to leave his job. Employers are justified in their fears that the new law would prompt rigorous, and yes, costly safeguards in the future.

The economics of toxic chemicals are none too palatable to a society pulling out of recession and struggling to resuscitate flagging industries. But the costs must be stomached nonetheless because they reflect a necessary, and long-overdue, recognition of the dangers of toxic materials. None of the highly publicized toxic waste cases in recent years are isolated examples: even conservative estimates place the number of hazardous dump sites nationwide at 14,000. It is frightening to estimate how many people have come into contact with those toxins before they were discarded. And the medical repercussions are tragic: improper exposure has led to illnesses as sever as nerve damage, liver dysfunction's and cancer.

Many health links are still uncertain, but new studies are adding more damning evidence. More and more, communities are taking action to isolate and regulate dangerous chemicals. At least five states, including New York, California and Connecticut, have passed Right to Know laws and more than a dozen state legislatures are currently considering similar provisions. Clearly, the issue will not go away nor can states afford to close their eyes or pinch pennies on protection. As one of the bill's proponents remarked in response to charges that the list of hazardous chemicals was too lengthy, "It', not our fault there are 40,000 toxic chemicals out there." When a single concern can more than amply fill the pages of a bimonthly magazine (Hazardous Materials and Waste Management), something is clearly wrong.

The right to know will not provide answers to the dangers of hazardous materials, but at least the law will enable workers and citizens to meet the enemy. Holly A. Idelson