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A chemical diet?

One hundred thirty-two million pounds of chemicals go into the air that New Yorkers breathe, into the water they drink and into landfills in urban areas.

That isn't the far-out estimate of some wild-eyed activist; it's from federal and state records on the basis of industry reports.

Citizen Action warns that 36 million pounds of the total are cancer-causing chemicals. And 35.8 million pounds, more than 20 percent, escape any form of controls and move virtually undetected and unregulated into the environment.

The New York records, as compiled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, do not include chemicals spewed into our area from other states. These often float thousands of miles before dropping out into our airstream or waterways.

Add to our chemical diet:

Chemicals added to virtually everything we eat, and if you doubt it, read the labels. Also, a lot gets sneaked by because it's sprayed on produce or gets into the food chain in other ways.

Chemicals that your neighbor puts on the grass in ever-increasing amounts -- concentrations that may one day affect us all.

Chemicals that get into our everyday life as pesticides or herbicides in agriculture and gardening and the killer chemicals we use around the home.

Chemicals in products from paint to gasoline that emit fumes as we redo the house or fill the car at the self-service gas station. There is an alarming array of chemicals in household cleaners and oth-er common products, from swimming pool additives to Odor Eaters.

Chemicals from the secret, silent, odorless ingredients in rugs, home furnishings, paneling and other home products that pollute the air.

Chemicals in wildlife that expose hunters and fishermen who eat their catch.

This isn't intended as a scare story. Many chemicals have improved and lengthened life. One is simply impressed by a report that millions of pounds of chemicals escape each year and for decades have gone unreported.

Passage by Congress of the toxics right-to-know law brought much of this to the fore. For once, our legislators reasoned that individuals and communities have the right to know what's going on.

Firefighters, for example, enter buildings now with some knowledge of the dangers, as do other emergency personnel. Before, it was the blind leading the blind.

Unfortunately, industry is still fighting legislation sought by Attorney General Robert Abrams since the Bhopal disaster that would require emergency planning. And, of course, playing hand in glove with industry are state legislators who prefer having the disaster first.

We know now that there are 101 industries in Erie County that emit, discharge or get rid of chemicals, and another 41 in Niagara County.

It didn't take industry long to get the message. Companies fought the legislation tooth and nail, but once it was passed, they are falling over each other to cut emissions.

Only the tooth fairy would think this would have happened without forced disclosure.

Even with disclosure, no one is certain what mysterious flow of what chemical is causing shrubs and trees to die downwind of Chemical Row in Niagara Falls. Is it coming from DuPont, Olin Corp. or some other source whose unregulated discharges are despoiling a neighborhood?

Health officials in New York are quick to discount the impact of toxic dumps and other toxic exposure. They rely on one ace in the hole, and it's probably statistically correct, that smoking causes more deaths through cancer and heart disease.

This may be true, but one wonders if anyone is looking at the larger picture as millions of pounds of chemicals enter our environment every year. Some may dissipate, some may accumulate, some may undergo synergistic effects. And perhaps these wastes are the silent killers, the purveyors of chronic illness, the disrupters of health.

There are warning signals from other sources. The International Joint Commission, after 15 years, finally warned the United States and Canada that toxics in the Great Lakes pose a threat to the health of those living around the lakes.

And earlier, both Royal Academy in Canada and the National Academy of Sciences warned that persons living in the basin are at risk.

Even the government warns that those living in urban areas have higher risks of contracting cancer.

What is sobering is disclosure of the scope and extent of the chemicals flowing unchecked into the nation. Citizen Action estimates that during 1988 the 9,000 companies reporting released 6.2 billion pounds of chemicals.

That's even more staggering when one considers that there is a call for zero discharge of persistent chemicals into the Great Lakes.

The issue will not go away. Will health officials take more seriously the need to consider the cumulative effects? Will government take a second look at the levels of discharges it allows? Will industry push technology to further reduce the discharge?

And is this spewing of chemicals a waste of resources? Many companies have found value in what was once considered waste. We must pause and consider the chemical diet and where it is leading us.

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