Ken Geiser

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts - Lowell

Long before the development of the concepts of sustainable development the environmental impacts of the chemical industry were the subject of environmental concern. The production of caustic soda in England during the mid-19th century caused severe environmental damage from the waste hydrochloric acid released into streams and volatilized into the air. The damage to vegetation and soil was so severe that the British Parliament enacted the Alkali Act in 1863, authorizing special government inspectors to monitor and annually report on the firms behavior (Haber, 1958).

In the United States, early 20th-century concern over the environmental impacts of the chemical industry arose from the emerging fields of public health and sanitary engineering with labor activists as the primary source of attention for the occupational health issues. While acute poisoning and observable damage were well recognized, little was known about the more subtle, public health or environmental effects of many of the chemicals manufactured by the rapidly expanding inorganic and petrochemical industries. The professional fields of toxicology and pharmacology were just emerging during the 1930s, with academic centers opening at the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard University. In 1933, Dow Chemical Company opened a biochemical research laboratory to study the potential effects of chemicals on humans and other organisms and, two years later, the Du Pont Corporation established Haskell Laboratory, which soon became a world leader in studies of the toxic properties of chemicals. As the scientific information accumulated, the U.S. Public Health Service began issuing recommended environmental exposure standards for hazardous chemicals and the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists began publishing "threshold limit values" as recommended guidance for chemicals used in occupational settings (Geiser, 2001).

Environmental concerns were evident as well. During the 1920s the American Water Works Association documented many cases of water pollution from chemical production plants, and in 1935 Franklin Roosevelt's National Resources Committee listed the chemical industry as among the nation's most polluting. In 1945 Purdue University held its first annual conference on industrial chemical wastes and the following year the American Chemical Society sponsored a symposium on "Industrial Wastes: A Chemical Engineering Approach to a National Problem." However, even as concern about the hazards of the chemical industry and its wastes grew, the state and federal governments were slow to enact environmental and public health chemical risk management policies (Colten and Skinner, 1996; Tarr, 1996).

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