White no longer means purity, especially with paper products


February 20, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

This newspaper is grayish. Grocery bags are brown. Copy paper is white. Ditto paper towels. Ditto toilet paper, typing paper, note pads, stationery, food packaging and office paper. Snowy white and pure.

Well, not so pure. You see, the reason most paper is so dazzling white is that it is bleached with chlorine at the pulp and paper mill. And among the byproducts of the chlorine bleaching process are hundreds of synthetic compounds called organochlorines. One group of these compounds is a family called dioxins, which includes the most toxic substances ever made.

Dioxins haven't been around all that long. Few if any existed 100 years ago. And so research on their effects is in the preliminary stages -- where cigarette and asbestos research was 20 or 30 years ago.

Arnold Schecter, professor of preventive medicine at State University of New York Medical School, has been researching dioxins' effects since 1981, when he began to study American workers contaminated by dioxin and Vietnamese exposed to dioxin in Agent Orange. When lab animals and wildlife are exposed to high levels of dioxin: (a) they waste away and die; (b) they get cancer; (c) they develop immune deficiencies (AIDS, for example, is a severe immune deficiency); (d) they have birth defects. And though it's too soon to start printing hazard warnings on your notebook, the research shows that dioxins affect humans similarly.

Recent news stories have reported that dioxins don't seem to be as toxic as once thought. What the studies actually show is that dioxins are a potent human carcinogen. At high enough doses, dioxins cause a significant increase in some cancers, including soft tissue sarcoma and cancers of the trachea, bronchus and lungs.

Dioxins enter the environment in pulp and paper mill waste water. They are also created in PCB transformer fires and municipal incinerators and can be found in some wood preservatives and a few other sources. Once in the environment, the dioxins work their way up the food chain, accumulating in the fatty tissues of carnivores such as crabs, trout, herons and humans.

Schecter discovered that dioxin is now stored in the tissues of people in industrialized countries whether they've been exposed it in the workplace or not. He also found that women throughout the industrialized world now appear to have dioxin levels in their breast milk which exceed health standards set by government agencies.

Pulp and paper mills contribute dioxins in their waste water and sludge. They also contribute dioxins through the paper itself. Chlorine-bleached paper products such as diapers, sanitary napkins, coffee filters and writing paper contain dioxins. A 1988 Canadian study found that dioxins in paper milk cartons migrate into the milk. Later studies have confirmed that finding, leading New Zealand to ban paper milk cartons. White coffee filters have also been shown to leach dioxins.

A stroll down the aisles in Sweden shows the progress the Swedish paper industry has made in cleaning up paper products. Wherever appropriate, Swedish paper products are unbleached. Others are whitened by alternative methods, such as oxygen bleaching. Many products are labeled: chlorine-free, low chlorine or chlorine-bleached pulp. Proctor and Gamble even markets chlorine-free Pampers there, because Swedes have come to associate the conventionally bleached with toxins, the chlorine-free with purity.

The American paper and pulp industry doesn't bleach paper with chlorine just because that's the way it likes it. It does so because that's the way WE'VE liked it, all these years. It has invested millions in the process and is understandably reluctant to invest millions more in alternative technologies, especially when it has no guarantee that Americans will buy brown paper towels and cream-colored diapers.

What can you do to encourage our paper industry to invest in less-polluting paper-bleaching technologies? The obvious thing is to show a strong demand for chlorine-free paper by buying chlorine-free paper products. There's only one hitch: there aren't any here, to speak of.

Brown coffee filters are available in many coffee specialty stores. Celestial Seasonings sells tea in chlorine-free tea bags. Some mail-order firms sell recycled, unbleached note pads and stationery (Conservatree, 800-522-9200).

If you are a write-your-representative type, you can do so, urging him or her to pressure the pulp and paper industry to clean up its act.

If you are a call-the-consumer-hot-line type, do that, too. Or simply ask your store manager to stock and label such products as they become available. If your store uses white paper bags in its deli and specialty stores, encourage the manager to switch to brown. It's fashionable -- McDonald's is doing it.

You can also use less paper in general and recycle what you do use.

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