Risk of toxic chemicals highest at home, work, environmental report says

April 19, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Marylanders are more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals in their houses and on their jobs than in the environment, two advocacy groups said in a report released yesterday.

The report, by the National Environmental Law Center and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, estimates that U.S. manufacturers produce and use 50 times more pounds of chemicals than they emit into the air and water or dispose of as waste.

The environmentalists made that case yesterday at a news conference called to urge Congress to require industries to report the quantities and types of chemicals they produce each year. They also want consumers to have more information about what chemicals are in the products they buy. Making the information public, they say, will force industries to reduce the quantities they use and throw away.

"Worker and consumer hazards may be even more serious than the environmental and public health hazards posed by chemical releases," reads the report, titled "Toxic truth and consequences."

The report says the greatest risk of exposure to toxic chemicals may be when they are spilled in highway and railroad accidents; when industrial workers come into contact with them in the manufacturing process; and when consumers use and discard household products, from cleaners to paints.

But that risk is exaggerated in the report, according to the Chemical Manufacturers Association. "The real question is, how great are the risks?" said Jeffrey Van, a CMA spokesman. "The risks and consequences of moving and storing chemical products are small and getting smaller all the time."

Nationwide, the report said, an estimated 350 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were produced and used in 1988. The authors used information collected in New Jersey -- where a state law requires disclosure of chemicals produced and used -- to calculate a range of chemical production in other states.

"Chemicals produced in Maryland are 15 times what is really released into the environment," said Daniel Pontious at the Maryland office of PIRG. Some of the chemicals cause liver and kidney disease and cancer; others are discarded and end up in landfills where they can leak into the ground water, he said.

Mr. Pontious acknowledged that the calculations provide only rough guesses about chemical production in the state. "What we are calling for is better record-keeping," he said. "I would think that people would want to know what hazards they are being exposed to in the workplace and their houses."

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