Hexavalent chromium is a known respiratory irritant, and an established carcinogen (IARC group 1). A health risk assessment concluded there was negligible risk to residents of Stockton. But there is understandable community concern about the spill itself and about the communication of information about the spill to those who were potentially affected. In truth, the long term effects remain unknown.
These sort of events are, unfortunately, not rare. During 2011 the Orica plant mentioned above had six chemical leaks. It eventually closed for several months for audit and repairs. In December 2011 a Melbourne glue manufacturer was fined after a leak of n-butylamine, a flammable and corrosive chemical. In the Northern Territory, there were fears of chemicals leaking into floodwaters after a train was washed off a track in December 2011.
Rather than just being outraged at yet another chemical spill, Australia has the option to act to reduce use of known toxic chemicals - including established carcinogens. We can and should implement systems to protect workers and the community living around industrial sites, rather than worrying about one-off effects.
A very successful example of how legislation can reduce exposure to toxic agents is the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act. TURA has established a list of specific chemicals known as “toxics”.
The Act focusses on companies using large quantities of these toxics. They must evaluate their sites for pollution prevention opportunities, produce a plan to reduce the use and release of toxics, update the plan regularly, report their results on an annual basis, and pay a fee for their toxics use.
TURA has established a number of innovative approaches to help companies reduce their use of toxics. These include a Toxics Use Reduction Institute which works with companies to find “greener” substitutes.
In the 20 years since TURA was established, emissions from Massachusetts plants decreased by 56% and use of toxic chemicals decreased by 21% (after adjusting for production decreases). The TURA program has won several environmental awards and has been adapted by the Canadian province of Ontario and the city of Toronto.
It’s time for Australia to consider adopting this innovative, successful program. If we do that we can reduce the number of headlines about toxic chemical spills, and the anxiety, productivity loss and health concerns that go with them. Better still, we will boost the confidence of Australian workers that they can do a day’s work without increasing their risk of a serious disease.
Read more at the Medical Journal of Australia.