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Reducing chemical use reduces chemical spills: it’s obvious, so let’s do it

On August 8 last year, there was a leak of about a kilogram of hexavalent chromium from the Orica chemical plant on Kooragang Island, near Newcastle. Hexavalent chromium is a known respiratory irritant…

Fewer toxins could reduce the incidence of spills, like those from some Orica plants. AAP

On August 8 last year, there was a leak of about a kilogram of hexavalent chromium from the Orica chemical plant on Kooragang Island, near Newcastle.

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.

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    "Reduce the use of known toxic chemicals".

    How does this fit with the race to exploit coal seam gas, whether it lies under prime farmland, aquifers, water catchments serving a third of Australia's population or inner-cities?

  2. Renata Musolino

    OHS officer

    Two comments:
    It's fantastic that such an eminent group has highlighted the problems with how Australia is failing to properly deal with work-related cancers. It's incredible that despite, or perhaps because of, our very complex chemicals regulatory framework we are doing almost nothing to reduce exposures to carcinogens at work and in the environment. I hope this article, and the coverage it has received, will go some way to raising the issue in the community and above all, with government.

    The issue of 'fracking' is an interesting one which in some way highlights the problems raised by Professor Fritschi and the others. There are 23 hydraulic fracking chemicals potentially in use in Australia - most of these 'existing' which means they have not necessarily undergone thorough assessments.

    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Renata Musolino

      I did a postgrad unit in environmental toxicology - the two most important concepts, were were told, are "complexity" and "uncertainty".

      Toxicological data exists for only a fraction of chemicals in use; most of that data is short-term, high-dose animal data, where most actual exposure is long-term, low-dose (and human toxicology is not the same as for rats, dogs and monkeys).

      Then there's the issue of exposure to mixtures of chemicals (as results from fracking). little if anything at all is known about the effects of mixtures, apart from the fact that effects are almost certainly not additive so can't be predicted from single-chemical studies!

  3. Lin Fritschi

    Professor of Epidemiology at Curtin University

    There are two main issues here. Firstly determining which chemicals (or combination of chemicals as Lorna suggests) cause health effects. As Renata says, the "grandfathering" of existing chemicals in 1990 means that most of those chemicals have never been assessed for toxicity by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme The REACH scheme in the EU is attempting to remedy this, but they have tens of thousands of chemicals to assess .
    The second issue is protecting workers and the environment from chemicals we already know are a problem. The TURA scheme is one way to do this. The regulation of chemicals in Australia is extremely fragmented amongst states and the commonwealth, and amongst different government departments. This is hampering attempts to protect workers, residents living around industrial plants, and the environment.