Local News

February 20, 2014

Werner Braun: Toxicity vs. hazardous substances

As a chemist and toxicologist back in the day, I have a pretty good understanding of the difference between a substance which contains toxins but does not pose a health risk and a toxin-containing substance that should be considered hazardous.

I’ve noticed over the years that the definitions of toxicity and hazard are frequently confused, both in popular understanding and — more critically — among government regulators. This last fact can have dramatic impacts on policy decisions.

Here’s the critical point: Not everything that’s toxic should be considered hazardous. Unfortunately, some folks seem, either willingly or unwittingly, to create anxiety among the public by equating toxicity and risk. Clearly they are not the same.

Products that contain toxins are all around us, and used properly, present no hazard. Take for example a household cleaning agent containing chlorine bleach. When used as recommended, chlorine bleach is an effective cleaning agent that brightens clothes and diminishes stains. In our laundry rooms, this chemical doesn’t normally present a risk to those who use it.

However, if you were to ingest even a little bit of chlorine bleach you would likely die.

Let’s look at a more innocuous example, H2O, or water. Water is an element necessary for life, something which we use on a daily basis for drinking, cooking and bathing. Nothing could be better for us, right? Nothing could be less toxic? That’s certainly correct in most cases. However, if you got enough water in your lungs — as in a drowning accident — you would most likely die.

So, even the most helpful substances can become hazardous under the “right,” or wrong, conditions.

This comes to my mind because of recent concerns raised by the environmental community concerning coal fly ash.

For those who aren’t familiar with coal fly ash, it’s basically a component of the generation of electricity made from coal. It’s the small, light material that goes up with the flue gas when you burn coal to make electricity. Looking at it under a microscope, coal fly ash is essentially small glass beads. As such, these glass beads are inert.

Currently, coal fly ash is being “captured” at coal-fired power plants and is reused in the production of materials designed for the building industry, such as cement, bricks, gypsum board and carpet backing. This process provides a way to recycle and reuse waste that would otherwise be sent to landfills or impoundments.

Some members of the environmental community believe that because coal ash can present environmental problems under the wrong circumstances that it shouldn’t be used in certain building products or any of a number of other uses for which it is currently approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They believe it should be labeled hazardous.

Why is there a concern?

Around five or six years ago, some impounded coal ash was accidentally released into a stream when an earthen dam failed, causing environmental damage for many downstream residents.

That was definitely a problem, as I know we’d all agree. But that event generated a movement to regulate coal fly ash and to label it as a hazardous substance.

It’s very clear that the answer isn’t to ban the use of coal fly ash altogether, or to reclassify it as a hazardous substance, but rather to regulate coal ash impoundment appropriately so this type of accident won’t happen again.

But to label coal fly ash as a hazardous material is simply overkill. Period.

We certainly want to understand what toxins are around us, but environmental regulations must be based on regulating hazard. Remember this important point: Toxicity does not in and of itself equate to hazard. We can’t allow ourselves to become solely focused on whether or not something is “toxic.” The real issue is “Is it hazardous?”

Focusing on toxicity casts an enormously broad net over an issue for which an enormously broad net is not needed.

Clearly, we need to regulate hazardous materials and to make sure that they don’t become threats to the general public. But we need to use some common sense along the way.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.

 

1
Text Only
Local News
  • Bugs and Kisses 1 mlh.jpg Local stores expect tax holiday to create lots of sales

    Local retailers say Georgia’s sales tax holiday weekends mean big business for them, and they are gearing up to capitalize on this year’s tax-free shopping on Friday and Saturday.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Esme file mw 2.jpg Still fighting

    Ten-year-old Esme Miller was celebrated earlier this year for the way she’s handled a bout with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Historical photos of Murray County needed

    Maybe you have a photograph of a well-known preacher from the 1940s. Or maybe you have a photograph taken of a church choir from the 1920s.

    July 30, 2014

  • State DOT wants your input on transportation needs

    As state and national leaders consider alternatives for funding future transportation needs, the Georgia Department of Transportation wants to know what Georgians would like in their 21st century transportation system and how they recommend paying for it.

    July 30, 2014

  • Jail for Justice Tour event here tonight

    The Moral Monday Georgia Coalition, the NAACP-led multi-racial, multi-issue advocacy group, will host an event in partnership with the Georgia Dreamers Alliance, Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA), Whitfield NAACP and the Whitfield County Democratic Party at Dalton’s Mack Gaston Community Center tonight from 5 to 9.

    July 30, 2014

  • Two charged with tampering with evidence in drug investigation

    Two people have been arrested and charged with tampering with evidence in connection with the synthetic marijuana bust in February involving a Dalton business owner.

    July 30, 2014

  • Beaulieu to close operations for one week for inventory

    Floorcovering giant Beaulieu of America will conduct a physical inventory of its buildings and facilities next week, with only salaried employees reporting for work.

    July 30, 2014

  • Green spot closing 1 mlh.jpg A part of the family

    Larry Green can’t remember the exact date. But he says it was about 54 years ago when his father Marvin took him to see the new store he and his brother Herman had commissioned Red Jennings to build at 309 W. Emery St. in Dalton.

    July 29, 2014 3 Photos

  • New high school?

    The only means for “staying small” and preserving “The Dalton Way” in Dalton Public Schools may be through expansion, Superintendent Jim Hawkins said Tuesday.

    July 29, 2014

  • Bond denied for man arrested in synthetic marijuana bust

    A Dalton business owner charged in a synthetic marijuana bust was denied bond Tuesday.

    July 29, 2014