December 4, 2009

More to Deal with Than Just Climate: 25 Years Since Bhopal Disaster

Yesterday was a sad anniversary -- it's been 25 years since the Bhopal disaster raised the specter of chemicals and toxics as a deadly serious environmental issue. In the late 60s and 70s, rivers catching on fire and dense, opaque air above cities forced our attention on solving the pressing, tactical issues of air and water pollution.

But perhaps no environmental disaster grabbed people's attention quite like the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India on December 3, 1984. Estimates vary, but at least half a million people were exposed to toxins and thousands died within a few days. Birth defects and other serious lingering effects still plague the population in the region, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. (See the Bhopal Medical Appeal for more info).

This one event drove awareness and contributed mightily to the momentum building to reduce human exposure to toxicity. It was the beginning of a quarter century of action. One of the first real industry-driven initiatives in any sector, Responsible Care, grew out of the tragedy. A few years later, the U.S. created the Toxics Release Inventory which mandates transparency on a range of industries. The measurement and disclosure of toxic pollution by facility has forced a lot of soul-searching and kicked off long-standing sustainability efforts at companies like DuPont (which discovered it was the #1 polluter in the first TRI reports).

The movement has evolved a great deal in recent years as part of the larger green wave that's swept business, especially the powerful trends of supply chain greening and transparency in all we do. Wal-Mart, never one to pass up a chance to increase pressure on suppliers on sustainability issues, quietly introduced a new tool, GreenWERCS, to assess products on its shelves on chemical composition. Companies like SC Johnson, Nike, and HP have made significant efforts, some for years, to reduce toxicity.

High-profile stories of lead in toys, toxic drywall, and melamine in milk products (all tied to Chinese supply chain practices), as well as concerns about chemicals like BPA leaching from baby bottles here, have also raised awareness dramatically. As the world contemplates vast policy action on climate, it's worth noting that government pressure has continued to rise on toxics, with a large number of powerful laws around the world. Regulations in EU over the last decade, such as RoHS and REACH, have changed the game dramatically (shifting responsibility to prove safety from government to business). The U.S. has gotten into the act in recent years as well, with bans on phthalates in toys, the controversial and stringent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which targets toys in particular, and regional actions like California's new regs. Companies cannot avoid questions about what's in everything and how their products might affect human health.

But what's really interesting is how the approaches companies take to handling toxics have been shifting over years from end of pipe solutions to pollution prevention to a new movement under the banner of "green chemistry." Rather than demonizing chemicals and chemistry -- when they continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs -- this new approach seeks a third way.

The leaders are starting to design chemicals and products in new ways to reduce toxicity. Do this right, the thinking goes, and avoid tons of regulation, liability, and health problems altogether. There's enormous upside potential for the companies that can innovate and find ways to create the same material or chemical properties that we need with much lower risk to humans and the environment. So this is not all about regulations and risk-reduction - it's about getting smart about your own products, and it's about profit.

With all the extensive, and justified, coverage of climate change and the Copenhagen Summit, it's easy to forget that there are other serious environmental issues out there. This anniversary today certainly reminded me. From water to biodiversity to waste, a range of other problems continue evolve and create pressing challenges, for society and for business. Of course most of these, especially water, have deep connections to climate change, so it's right that we make that a priority issue.

But the issue of toxicity and chemicals is one that lies somewhat separate from the climate discussion. While it gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, the pressure on companies to deal with it just keeps rising and rising. It's worth, today, remembering why.

[Originally posted on Huffington Post]

[If this was forwarded to you and you'd like to sign up for Andrew's blog via email, click here]

Post A Comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)