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Wednesday, December 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Naysayers Seek Pollution Paralysis

Special To The Times

THE Washington State Department of Ecology is developing a plan to end releases of bioaccumulative pollutants such as dioxin and mercury to our air, land and water. Seattle Times readers deserve better coverage of this important issue than that offered by Michelle Malkin's highly misleading Dec. 8 column ("State's envirocrats are setting off false alarms").

Ecology is not yet saying what its plan will look like. And the timeline it has put forth for discussion doesn't end releases from existing sources until 22 years from now, hardly a breakneck pace for action. But Ecology's decision to adopt a plan is nonetheless tremendously important because it acknowledges for the first time that we need to be striving to eliminate our releases of these pollutants.

Bioaccumulative pollutants are the ones that lodge in the bodies of people and other animals. They tend to end up in breast milk and to enter unborn children through the umbilical cord, resulting in toxic exposures at the most vulnerable stages of life. And they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. Bald eagles can carry concentrations 100 million times higher than those in the water in which they fish, for example.

There is no question that the 27 pollutants Ecology is targeting are very dangerous, despite Malkin's assertions to the contrary. A huge body of evidence links them to injuries to salmon and other fish in our region, reduced IQs, birth defects, cancer,

reproductive problems and other injuries. Sounding rather like tobacco scientists, chemical corporations and graduates from their think tanks like Malkin somehow find a way to ignore the studies the rest of us are reading.

Many of the pollutants on Ecology's list are known to mess with hormones, but Malkin dismisses this topic with a reference to a single withdrawn study. Never mind that there are hundreds upon hundreds of other studies that together create compelling evidence about these pollutants and hormone disruption. Never mind that respected scientists from around the world have issued unprecedented consensus statements expressing deep concern about this issue. It's easier for Malkin to dismiss those of us who seek to bring this information forward for public discussion by labeling us "scare-mongers." Marginalizing the messenger is so much more convenient than dealing with the message. The unfairness of Malkin's tactics is exacerbated by the fact that Times readers have had the benefit of absolutely no reporting on Ecology's new strategy, just editorializing.

Malkin implies that we want zero bioaccumulative toxics in the environment, and then gleefully decimates this straw man by pointing to naturally occurring bioaccumulative toxics. But Malkin knows full well that we're talking about zero discharge, not zero toxics in the environment. We can't eliminate naturally occurring bioaccumulative toxics, nor can we fully clean up the pollution we've already created, but we can and should strive to halt our inputs to the environment. Just because mercury is a naturally occurring element doesn't mean we should distribute it in the environment by dumping it in water and air. We may agree as a society to certain limited exceptions, but in general we need to strive for zero discharge.

Malkin's emphasis on natural toxins is part of the "everything causes cancer" strategy she and others use to promote paralysis over stronger pollution controls. If everything causes cancer, we might as well give up on trying to do something about it, they imply.

Closely linked to this strategy is Malkin's standard "Stone Age" argument. She accuses the Toxics Coalition and others of wanting to move society back in time. As Malkin presents things, there are two main ages of human existence: the Stone Age and modern industrial times. Those of us who want to address modern pollution are technophobes advocating a return to the Stone Age.

But she's got us all wrong. We envision a new age, one that we need to enter as we enter the new millennium, an age in which we acknowledge that the laws of nature do apply to us. Unlike naysayers seeking to perpetuate the dumping of long-lasting poisons into the environment, we have faith in humankind's technological ingenuity. We believe that society can advance to sustainable technologies that are in harmony with the environment and that provide safe, family-wage jobs for workers.

We know that alternatives already exist for many major sources of these pollutants such as pulp mills, incinerators, fertilizer companies that use industrial wastes, pesticides and other sources. Ecology needs to use its ample authorities to ensure that these alternatives are implemented on realistic yet urgent timelines - timelines that will be a lot faster than 22 years in many cases. The agency needs to pull together labor groups, communities and the general public, as well as regulated parties, to develop just transition strategies.

Ecology's phaseout plan is linked to vitally important questions like these: Why will well over a million people be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States? Why have rates of hypospadias - a genital defect in little boys akin to the "feminized penises" showing up in wildlife species - nearly doubled over the past 20 years? And what shall we do about the fact that every child on Earth is now exposed to brain-damaging pollutants and carcinogens in the womb and through breast milk? This is an issue of tremendous importance to public health and the health of other species in the region, such as salmon.

It is also an issue that raises fundamental ethical questions. Our bioaccumulative pollutants become our children's burden, because they lodge in our children's world and in their bodies.

Ecology needs to hear from the public about this issue at the public meetings it has scheduled in early 1999.

Because this issue is so important and so difficult to discuss within the confines of short newspaper pieces, I cordially invite Malkin to participate in a public debate with me and others in the spring of 1999. These issues deserve full public discussion.

Carol Dansereau is organizational director of the Seattle-based Washington Toxics Coalition.

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Department of Ecology public meetings

-- Vancouver, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 28, 7 p.m., Clark Community College, Foster Auditorium, 1800 E. McLoughlin Blvd.

-- Spokane, Thursday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m., Spokane Community College, Lair Auditorium-Building No. 6, 1810 N. Greene St. -- Seattle, Thursday, Feb. 25, 7 p.m., The Mountaineers (Tahoma Room), 300 Third Ave. W.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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