RTK or Left-To-Wonder?
Recommended Reading

The Newsletter of the Science and Environmental Health Network
July 1996 - Volume 1, #5


by John Chelen

by Paul Orum

by Jackie Hunt Christensen


- Theo Colborn to Speak at SEHN Forum on September 24
- Cancer and Pesticides Conference
- Science Mentoring Project: Looking for a Few Good Women
- UCSC Agrees Not to Use Vikane
- Resources for Right-To-Know


- Greg McIsaac
- Frank Emspak
- Peter deFur





1. Introduction

When the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act) was passed, an extraordinary framework for community involvement in pollution prevention and emergency preparedness was created. Ordinary citizens would be empowered through the use of data that had been previously available only to a privileged few.

However, EPCRA also marked a sea change in thinking about how, in general, government data should be shared. Additionally, with the explosive growth in the Internet and the World Wide Web, our expectations of what government agencies should be doing also has changed. We now have every expectation that government should actively seek out ways to communicate with the public and encourage their use of information.

2. What is RTK?

At its heart, "Right-To-Know" (RTK) refers to more than the provision of information about potentially dangerous activities. Although the original advocates who helped pass EPCRA relied upon a rationale that was built upon the fears of another Bhopal, RTK is a much more fundamental right. Reporters and investigators call for RTK for many kinds of issues, including election campaign finance data, government procurement information, budget and expenditures, and agency rule making.

From this perspective, RTK is founded upon a concern for fundamental fairness. Government should not act without the explicit consent of the governed. Unless the voter is aware of the rationale and basis for a decision, that voter is not fully franchised. This means that RTK is a fundamental aspect of "Due Process." Unless adequate information is made available, any process, and any resultant decisions, are inherently unfair.

When we consider environmental protection, it's easy to understand how RTK applies. If facilities are permitted to emit toxic waste, then the public is entitled to know how much waste is emitted and what the effects of those toxics may be. If a facility is to be located in a community, the community is entitled to know what risks are associated with that facility.

3. Implementing RTK

At its heart, RTK is accomplished by collecting information and then re-distributing it, typically by a government agency. However, RTK is more. RTK data must be comprehensive -- we need access to national data. In order for the people in a community to understand what is going on in their home town, they need to be able to see what is going on in other similar communities. Moreover, RTK data must be put in perspective by providing other data that complete the picture. Toxics data alone is valuable, but it is even more valuable when combined with census and health data.

The technology selected for providing RTK data is also important. Modern computer technology makes distribution of the data over computer networks ideal, especially since the data are likely to be quite large. However, some people do not have or can not use computers, and need the information distributed on paper. Therefore RTK data require a range of distribution methods, from high-tech Internet Web pages, paper reports, and direct technical assistance.

Finally, government has to encourage the actual use of the information. We need to know how people in our local communities can put the information to use and encourage that process. We have to make sure that local reporters can research and develop stories, that zoning and planning agencies can include the data in their own decisions, that local industrial plants can track their own behavior, and that our regulatory and permitting processes encourage citizens to become informed and involved.

4. False arguments about RTK

Some people have argued that RTK programs are "regulatory, top-down" or "command-and-control" approaches, where the strong arm of government forces industry to comply with complex regulations. Nothing could be further from the truth. A typical regulatory approach might involve putting further limits on emissions or forcing polluters to buy more pollution control equipment. Alternatively, having polluters provide RTK information on the potential harm they are inflicting on others is not a "command-and-control" approach. In fact, it is close to a pure "laissez-faire" market-driven approach. Citizens are free to take any steps they wish. Any corrective action is left up to the marketplace. Citizens are free to decide which products to buy, which companies' stock to purchase, which Congressman they wish to vote for, and which businesses they want to have in their communities.

Arguments are also made that RTK would infringe on secrets that polluters have a valid right to keep, either those involving business secrets or national security. However, RTK laws are designed to provide information on potential public harm without divulging legitimate intellectual property or military secrets. We have yet to witness or document any major case in which secrets were improperly divulged.

5. The Future

Although it may be frustrating, we need to continue to encourage industry to support RTK. The leaders of major industrial firms have acknowledged that RTK information has been useful to them and made them aware of ways to save money. They also acknowledge that the burdens of an RTK reporting program are much less, and inherently provide more flexibility, than prior regulatory approaches. We need to help them encourage other firms to embrace RTK techniques and voluntarily support new RTK initiatives. We need to encourage industry to work with government, environmental advocates, the media, and academia, to fulfill the promise of RTK.

Next, if we want substantive RTK information, we will have to continue the struggle to make it meaningful. We must urge EPA, and other federal agencies, to make RTK a key part of all ongoing regulatory programs. We need to encourage every program office to actively encourage the use of its information by the general public. We must highlight the brave steps that some offices take, especially when it entails risk to them that their own flaws and mistakes might be made visible. We need to make sure that government employees, congressmen, and industry representatives are supported and rewarded when they take steps to meet RTK challenges.

We need to endorse those federal agencies, and state and local governments as well, that embrace RTK. Some elected officials know that RTK makes good politics - it engenders trust and participation by the electorate. The U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and others, are moving to expand their RTK efforts. The Office of Management and Budget is working to help provide access to more information through the Internet and is encouraging efforts to coordinate and link federal data. There is literally a race on by various agencies to see who can provide the best service to the public through the Internet.

Finally, we should encourage one very specific inter-agency RTK initiative - the electronic publication of national epidemiological data and its linkage with environmental data. Although various federal agencies collect health data, the barriers to their use are endemic. Not only are the data difficult to obtain and use by medical practitioners, our collective methodologies are not well developed. Even experienced epidemiologists are too often unwilling (and frequently also unable) to engage in the debate on regulatory reform if they adhere to traditional approaches and roles.

The problems for other groups interested in the health of local populations are almost insurmountable. Most data are not obtainable under any circumstances, and when some data can be obtained, they are usually almost unusable because of sampling issues and complexity. Additionally, since these groups may lack sophisticated statistical skills, they find themselves drawn into unwinnable debates on their methodological approach and the limits of interpretation. Frequently, potentially valuable results are discredited on the basis of peripheral issues.

We propose a national RTK health information initiative that would:

- Provide a voice for improved dissemination of health information.
- Coordinate a process of collaboration between multiple sectors.
- Electronically publish important statistical databases.
- Facilitate the publishing of health data by multiple organizations.
- Develop linkage and search software for ad hoc analysis.
- Train and coordinate users.

Such an initiative would provide a foundation for decentralized analysis by both local and national groups. It would help balance the interests of local groups and threats to local health. It would accelerate the development of methods for addressing local environmental health issues. Finally, it would result in new findings on the environmental effects of specific environmental threats.


John Chelen, Unison Institute
1742 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009
V-202-797-7200; F-202-234-8584
E-mail: [email protected]


House Rejects Back Door Right-to-Know Restrictions:

On June 26, for the first time in a decade, the full U.S. House of Representatives took up community right-to-know in eliminating an anti-right-to-know provision from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget appropriation. This is an important victory.

Earlier in June, the House Committee on Appropriations added a provision to EPA's budget appropriation cutting $1.5 million from community right-to-know, in particular from expansion of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to cover how much chemicals a company uses. However, since EPA plans to spend only $300,000 next year on adding chemical use data to TRI, the measure would have cut into outreach, interpretation, data quality, and training as well.

Congressman Durbin (D-Ill.) offered an amendment which passed amid intense pressure from public interest groups and support from the Clinton Administration.

Gore Announces TRI Expansion:

On June 26, Vice President Al Gore announced a proposal to add seven currently exempt industries to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), the nation's right-to-know law for toxic pollution. This is a major expansion, sought for years by environmental and labor groups. By EPA estimates, the expansion covers:

Altogether, the proposal adds some 6,400 individual facilities to TRI, or a projected 30 percent increase in sites reporting releases to the environment. Still exempt are vast segments of American industry. All industrial sectors should be added to TRI, but this proposal is a reasonable first step.

The fight is far from over. Expect each industry to work hard to get themselves off the expansion list. Public comments in support of right-to-know expansion are needed to EPA by Aug. 26

You can help expand our right-to-know about toxic pollution to seven more industries, as proposed by EPA. By Aug. 26, send a short letter to EPA. We suggest...

Send three copies by August 26 to:

Attn: Docket 400104 TSCA Document Receipt Office (7407) U.S. EPA, Room E-G099 401 M Street, SW Washington, DC 20460

Or present your comments at public meetings on Aug. 7 in San Francisco or Aug. 14 in Washington, D.C.

For details, see the June 27, 1996, Federal Register (61 FR 33587 - - EPA can send you a copy, 1-800-535-0202); or call Paul Orum at (202) 544-9586.

Right-To-Know More:

Federal Facilities -- Federal Facilities were added to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) by Clinton Executive Order in 1993, EPA released the first national Federal facilities' toxics emissions data (from 1994) in June. Each of the 190 covered Federal facilities must also make public a pollution prevention plan. Federal facilities reported the largest releases in Okla., Ga., Neb., Calif., Ohio, Ky., N.C., Fla., Ala., and Texas.

More Chemicals (Phase I) -- EPA added some 280 chemicals to TRI in late 1994 (effective for 1995). All of the additional chemicals are regulated as toxic under other environmental laws and programs. Despite public statements supporting TRI, the Chemical Manufacturers Association sued to keep about 150 of these chemicals off the TRI list--but lost in U.S. District Court. On June 27, CMA appealed.

More Industries (Phase II) -- As mentioned earlier, EPA proposed to add seven types of currently exempt non-manufacturing industries to TRI.

Chemical Use Data (Phase III) -- On August 8, 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12969 requiring firms that do business with the Federal government report toxic releases even if Congress weakens the right-to-know act. He also directed EPA to develop a plan for adding chemical use information to TRI.


Paul Orum
Working Group on Community Right to Know
218 D. St SE
Washington D.C. 20003
E-Mail: [email protected]

The Working Group on Community Right-to-Know is an affiliation of several dozen national environmental and public interest organizations. It serves a nationwide network of activists working to protect and promote our right to know about toxic pollution. The Working Group emphasizes the use of right to know in pollution prevention, chemical accident prevention and reform of EPA's environmental information for better public access.


Regulating Medical Waste Incinerators: Where's the Science?

On June 20, 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued in the FEDERAL REGISTER a notice of availability of supplemental information and reopened the public comment period on its performance standards and emissions guidelines for medical waste incinerators. Due to a high volume of comments and claims of new information since the agency's issuance of guidelines in February 1995, the comment period has been extended until August 8, 1996. The rule should be final in July 1997.

Some of the critical information in the 44-page notice includes changes in the number of medical waste incinerators (MWI) presumed to be in operation, and the amount of dioxin and mercury those incinerators emit into the air. For example, EPA's 1994 draft dioxin reassessment had estimated the number of MWI nationally to be 6,700. When the agency began drafting the guidelines, the agency estimated that 3,700 existed (and they noted that "it was difficult to find MWI with add-on air pollution control systems in place").

Many incinerators are believed to have shut down over the past few years. The previous estimate was based on calculations from state populations rather than actual data on the number of existing incinerators. Now using figures from the American Hospital Association and other sources, EPA's air division is basing the standards on approximately 2,400 MWI.

The amount of dioxin emitted by those incinerators is estimated to be drastically less than the amount attributed to MWI in the draft dioxin reassessment. At the time the new source performance standards and emissions guidelines were proposed, EPA estimated that medical waste incinerators contributed 5,100 grams TEQ to the identified dioxin loading -- roughly one gram of dioxin per year per facility. Now, the estimate by the agency's air division has been revised to 150 grams/year TEQ in the proposed rules. The only explanation given for this radical decrease is a "much greater level of emission control at existing MWI than was assumed at proposal." This seems to contradict the earlier statement about the agency's difficulty in finding MWI with add-on pollution control equipment. There is no information given about the calculations used to determine the new number.

In evaluating achievable levels of dioxin emissions for combustion control, the original proposal had been "driven" by 2 data points from 2 MWI. Upon review of those 2 facilities, the agency has decided that they can no longer assume that the tests from those facilities were "representative of good combustion." However, the agency does not indicate which, if any, data points it is now using for its emissions assumptions.

In anticipation of the extreme reduction in estimated dioxin emissions from medical waste incinerators, a coalition of more than 20 grassroots and national environmental groups submitted a letter on May 24 to Mary Nichols, Assistant Administrator at the Office of Air and Radiation, calling upon the agency to forego official estimates of dioxin emissions, due to lack of reliable, independent data, and to use the comment period to "seek test data that is [sic] representative of real world emissions and verify the validity of existing data by experts inside and outside the Agency." The letter expressed concerns that reduced dioxin emissions projections based on industry data would result in pressure on EPA by the MWI industry to relax regulations. Because continuous emissions monitoring is not in place (and is unlikely to be implemented as part of the standards because "it appears that almost all of the emission testing and monitoring options under consideration cost more than the emissions control system ..."), credible dioxin emissions estimates are not realistic at this time.

To date, the EPA has actual test data from only 24 of the 2400 facilities. So 1% of the facilities are driving the regulation of the other 99%. In the May 24 letter to Asst. Administrator Nichols, environmentalists called those data into question as they were believed to have been supplied by industry. More and independent peer-reviewed data need to be collected to provide an accurate picture of real-world emissions levels.

Another important change in the proposed rule is the definition of medical waste itself. This change has far-reaching implications for the emissions calculations. The agency has determined that the non-infectious, municipal-waste type ("black bag") portion of the waste is covered by municipal solid waste disposal regulations, not regulations for medical waste, noting that "if healthcare facilities are viewed as generating two types of waste streams, an infectious waste stream and a municipal waste stream, then the burning of the municipal waste stream is already covered by regulations [adopted December 19, 1995]." Incinerators burning only pathological waste had already been excluded from the proposed rules. Thus, EPA plans to develop a definition of medical waste which deals only with the infectious portion of the waste stream.

The definition they are looking at currently is that used by the New York State Department of Health, which includes cultures and stocks of infectious agents, human pathological waste, human blood and blood products (but not "items caked with dried blood, or IV bags"), used sharps, animal wastes and unused sharps. These items are believed to account for 10 to 15 percent of the medical waste stream. What is unclear (and this lack of clarity should be emphasized in comments) is that the proposed rules do not state whether the figures given for revised "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" are for this NEW definition of medical waste, which deals with only a small portion of the waste stream, or for the entire mixed waste stream.

If the rules do indeed only include the 10-15% infectious waste stream, the public has no way to easily calculate the dioxin and other pollutant emissions from the other 85-90% of waste being burned at many of these facilities. Many health care facilities burn all of their waste -- both infectious and municipal-type -- in their incinerator, and the proposed rules offer no data on how many facilities this might be. If the new emissions figures do actually deal with the entire waste stream, the agency is still obligated to provide detailed information as to how it arrived at those numbers.

The revised "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" (MACT) floor level (or baseline level of stringency) emissions for existing incinerators are uncontrolled for many pollutants, including dioxin, lead, cadmium and mercury but floor levels have been proposed for those chemicals for new MWI.

The proposed rules set standards and emissions guidelines for a number of pollutants, but do not tell incinerator operators how to comply (i.e., they do not mandate particular types of pollution control equipment for existing incinerators), nor do they apply to autoclaves, microwaves or other alternative medical waste treatment options.

To submit comments on EPA's proposed rules for new source performance standards for medical waste incinerators, send two copies to: The Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center, ATTN Docket No. A-91-61, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC 20460. Copies of the FEDERAL REGISTER notice of June 20, 1996 are available on EPA's Technology Transfer Network (TTN), which can be accessed at TELNET: The document is in the Clean Air Act Amendment section under "Recently Signed Rules." The file name "" It is a very large file. If you are an IBM user, you must have a program to "unzip" the file, or you can download such a program from the site. MAC users cannot download "zip" files from the TTN. The proposed rules can also be accessed on the Government Printing Office WWW site at waisgate.cgi?WAISdocID=025401919+2+0+0&WAISaction=retrieve.


Jackie Hunt Christensen
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
1313 5th St. SE #303
Minneapolis, MN 55414
phone: 612-379-5980; fax: 612-379-5982



Theo Colborn to Speak at SEHN Forum

News Flash! Theo Colborn will speak on Endocrine Disruption at Home and At Work on September 24th in Washington DC at a Forum sponsored by the Science and Environmental Health Network and the Society For Occupational ad Environmental Health. Mark your calendars! The next issue of the Networker will have more details.


Cancer and Pesticides Conference

The Rachel Carson Council, Inc. will sponsor a Cancer and Pesticides Conference Saturday, October 26th at the Patuxent National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel Maryland. Dr. David Pimentel will give the keynote address and Dr. Aaron Blair will present closing remarks.

This conference will bring together scientists from various universities, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and other organizations to discuss the associations between cancer and pesticides.

Topics to be addressed are: Pesticides-related Occupational Cancers, Epidemiology as a Tool to Study the Relationship between Cancer and Pesticides, Dioxin and its Effect on Cancer, Animals as Sentinels of Pesticide Carcinogenicity, Laboratory Methods of Carcinogenicity Determination and Pesticide-related Tumors in Fish and Aquatic Invertebrates.

Cost is $50.00 pre-registration/$60.00 at the door. Fee includes lunch and a publication of relevant articles as well as the conference presentations.

For more information: contact Dr. Diana Post at the Rachel Carson Council, phone (301) 652-1877, Fax (301) 951-7179 or Email: [email protected]


Science Mentoring Project: Looking for a Few Good Women

The Education Development Center, Inc's (EDC) Center for Children and Technology is running an on-line Telementoring project that links high school girls in science and technical courses to women in science-related fields for on-line mentoring experiences. But they need you! The project is expanding this year to schools across the country and they are eagerly searching for well-rounded female scientists, engineers, and environmentalists to serve as on-line mentors. A pilot program has been implemented in five states and reached 110 young women from schools participating in supercomputing and project-based science classes. Through this work, the project learned that the young women were most interested in corresponding with mentors who were involved in environmental and ethically-based approaches to science. The program in entering its final year this Fall. To apply to the program, contact Mentor Liaison, Naomi Hupert at [email protected] or visit the project's web-site at

The Telementoring project is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Center for Children and Technology is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve education by altering the circumstances of teaching and learning; they do basic, applied, and formative research and technology development.

EDC/Center for Children and Technology
96 Morton Street, 7th Floor
New York, New York 10014
e-mail: [email protected]
fax: 212-633-8804


UCSC Won't Use the Pesticide Vikane in Housing or Child Care Center

Mike Meuser reports that congratulations must go to the Family Student Housing (FSH) Residents' Council at the University of California at Santa Cruz which was successful in stopping the fumigation (for termites) of student housing and a child care center with Vikane which is manufactured by Dow Elanco. The University had contracted for the pesticide knowing that the community had serious concerns about the health risks of fumigation and that residents of FSH had often expressed their desire to be a party to the decision-making process. However, the FSH prevailed in their efforts and the University has agreed to look at alternatives, particularly thermal treatments.


Resources on Right-to-Know

There are several useful places to get information on toxic materials used, stored, or discharged in your community.

- RTK Net, the Right-to-Know Network is an online computer telecommunications link to the latest national databases. Its free. Telephone: (202)234-8494. And E-Mail:[email protected]

- Toxnet, a service of the Library of Medicine, provides on on-line computer database. Account information can be obtained at (301) 496-1131. The cost is $18.00 an hour.

- TRI-US is EPA's Toxics Release Inventory User Support Service. Telephone: (202) 260-1531.



I thought issue vol 1, #4 of the Networker was pretty good. I was interested in the general theme and there were some interesting perspectives and information. I think though that you mis-characterized the situation in your introduction when you stated that scientists do research "on esoteric topics unrelated to the world around them..." I think most scientists that I talk to are doing research that is related to the world around them. More and more, getting research funding usually involves working on a project that is relevant to some constituency. Applying information from that research to the world around them in a way that improves the environment and public health is often a difficult and complex task.

In my area of soil erosion and water quality, much of the work we do probably appears arcane to most people, but in order to make generalizations about the results, we have to use mathematical models of the water movement process, and people unfamiliar with the models would probably not be able to appreciate the significance (or the insignificance) of our research, nor how it applies to the world around us.

I was glad to see, in E. Bird's piece, some universities are making some attempts to recognize different types of innovative scholarship, such as the scholarship of integration. Much of this seems to be happening at smaller colleges. The University of Illinois will probably be one of the laggards in this effort, unless someone can show that these efforts bring money into the university. If that were the case, the U of I might be in the forefront of such activity, but for the wrong reasons.

Keep up the good work,

Greg McIsaac

I feel moved to comment on cooperative extension. I am a faculty member at the School for Workers, which is part of Continuing Education, a department of the University of Wisconsin Extension. Wisconsin Extension has a long history and was part of the notion of community service, adult education etc. However, increasingly here and in other states it is seen as an adjunct to business- either providing specified training for business, or helping sell under the guise of new technology one or another set of products.

Programs like ours are few and far between, small in faculty and often program revenue driven- that is we have to charge for services and pay most of our costs ourselves. While it is fine to offer services for small business, it is not considered so fine to offer equivalent services to working people. To put it another way- the commitment by state universities to educate all people in the state in ways that are meaningful and affordable is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. There are a number of reasons for this development but certainly the attacks on free public education as a needed cornerstone of democracy is a contributing factor. Extension suffers from those political pressures. Secondly, extension is often a target as funds are transferred from education to prisons.

Frank Emspak



"What single change in the University would most foster public interest science?"

Answer: If the University system rewarded public interest science with promotion, tenure and salary adjustments, faculty would feel the importance of carrying out "public interest science".

Including this level of work in "service" initiates an entire cascade of events that are inextricably linked to the rewards system. These events include printed matter, memo's, guidelines and contracts that spell out the details of what is expected and required. The result would be more than a small change. The other element would be funding. Faculty would demand time off to serve public interests and the funding to support it.

Peter deFur


Department of Thanks:

A heartfelt thanks goes to the C.S. Mott Foundation and the Bauman Family Foundation for recent grants to the Focus Project Inc. for the Science and Environmental Health Network.

The Press Room of Jamestown North Dakota donated the printing and paper for the SEHN Handbook entitled "Scientists and Grassroots Organizations: Good Work That Matters. And they are unfailingly gracious with all of the environmental restrictions

Source: The Networker

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