Dear "Earth Talk": What environmental and health problems are associated with the use of chlorine by the paper industry? Is chlorine really essential in the production of paper? -- Misty Landletter, Tempe, Ariz.
To achieve its pearly-white color, most paper goes through a bleaching process that involves the use of chlorine or chemicals derived from it (e.g., chlorine dioxide). The process also removes lignin, a component of wood fiber that can eventually turn paper yellow.
Archie Beaton, executive director of the Chlorine-Free Products Association, says that chlorine produces toxins known as organochlorides, which are released into the environment through the waste discharges from paper and pulp mills. They then settle in the fatty tissues and glands of animals exposed to them, gradually "bioaccumulating" up through the food chain -- that is, after one animal consumes another, its body inherits the poisons present in its prey. Humans also are affected. In fact, all women have traces of dioxin, an organochloride, in their breast milk, a disturbing phenomenon of the chemical age we live in.
According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which is based in a state with 34 pulp and paper mills, there is compelling scientific evidence that dioxins can cause cancer, birth and developmental defects, learning disabilities, an increased risk of diabetes, decreased fertility, reduced sperm count, endometriosis, and immunosuppression. Developing fetuses and breast-feeding infants are particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of dioxin.
Alternatives to conventional chlorine-bleached papers do exist. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, "totally chlorine free," or TCF, paper is bleached with the use of alternative substances, including hydrogen peroxide and oxygen. One small downside of TCF paper is that it can have no recycled content -- papers used to make recycled paper might have been previously bleached with chlorine -- so it is made from 100 percent virgin fiber.
Another option is "processed-chlorine free," or PCF, paper; it's produced in a process that skips the bleaching process of chlorine and can also have as much as 100 percent recycled content. For a paper to be labeled PCF, it must have at least 30 percent "postconsumer" content (paper actually once used, not just trimmings from print shops), and the rebleaching process cannot include chlorine-containing compounds. It's not totally chlorine-free, because chlorine may have been in the postconsumer material used to make it.
The third type of chlorine-free paper, "elementally chlorine-free," or ECF, is the most controversial. It uses chlorine derivatives, such as chlorine dioxide, that CIWMB says can "still produce toxic chlorinated organic compounds, including chloroform, a known carcinogen." The American Forest and Paper Association claims that many pulp mills across the country have switched to ECF, and it now accounts for 96 percent of bleached chemical pulp production in the United States.
For more information: Chlorine Free Products Association, 847-658-6104, www.chlorinefreeproducts.org; California Integrated Waste Management Board, 916-341-6000, www.ciwmb.ca.gov; American Forest and Paper Association, 800-878-8878, www.afandpa.org.
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