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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Dioxin in Germany

by Barbel Hohn, Speaker of Green Parliament List,
North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Sidebar: Die Grünen: Strategies for Resisting Dioxin

There are a number of industrial centers in Germany that show a high concentration of harmful substances: the largest area is the Ruhr in the very west of Germany, a megalopolis stretching 50 miles from Duisburg in the southwest to Dortmund in the northeast. The second is a 30 mile stretch along the river Rhine from Cologne in the south via Leverkusen to Düsseldorf in the north. Then there is the greater Frankfurt area, the cities of Hamburg and Berlin and the Leipzig/Bitterfeld area in former East Germany.

In the Ruhr, waste management has joined coal and steel as an industry. Its industrial structure suggests that the Ruhr is probably highly polluted with dioxins and heavy metals.

High readings in 1990 suggested that there must be large emitters of dioxins. In November, 1992, high dioxin concentrations were found in a sintering plant in Dortmund—250 g TE (grams of dioxin toxic equivalency) per year were emitted from one chimney alone. ["Sintering plants" make metals, metal alloys, glass or ceramic oxides. —Ed.]. A copper plant in Duisburg emits approximately 122 g TE per year.

The old estimate of 800-900 g TE per year for all of Germany, which was mainly based on the emissions of incinerators, has to be revised in the face of these emissions from other industrial facilities.

Since there is a lot of road traffic in industrial areas, this adds to the emissions and exposes the population not only to pollution by dioxins but also by heavy metals (particularly lead and cadmium), benzene and other substances. Research has shown that the number of children with birth defects is twice as high in Duisburg than in the city of Kleve, a nearby pollution-free zone.

A number of methods which have enjoyed a good reputation in Germany due to their having been labelled "recycling" now need to be re-examined to determine if they are harmful. These include:

In general any industrial facility that burns used oil for energy is problematic, since used oil often contains PCBs or substitutes.

In mining, oils are used that don't catch fire easily. Since chlorine is not easily flammable it is considered the ideal component.

This means that the dioxin problem cannot be reduced to the classic incinerators but that other branches of industry that burn additives containing halogens, particularly chlorine, have to be taken into account. It is especially dangerous if metals are used as catalysts. Cars' exhaust fumes contain bromide dioxins that have to be considered as noxious as chloride dioxins.

Another source of dioxins was discovered in Germany in 1991, which was a grainy copper oxide-silicon compound called Kieselrot. This material, which was produced in great amounts as a by-product of a copper factory between 1938 and 1945, has been used as a filling material for sidewalks and sports fields.

Politicians' reactions

The powerful political castes have proved very adroit in breaking the mounting public resistance, particularly against incinerators. They tried extending the problem beyond incinerators and at the same time calming the population's anxiety as to the dangers involved.

And since these plants do not have filters and there are neither limits nor recommendations for their emissions, the total emission of dioxins was greatly increased.

Since 1990, it has been possible for industrial plants to replace up to 25% of the fuel they burn with waste. The number of possible emitters rose sharply to a few thousand. And since these plants do not have filters and there are neither limits nor recommendations for their emissions, the total emission of dioxins was greatly increased.

There is confusion over terms, and the consequences are catastrophic. Waste can be declared a resource (in German: Wertstoff, literally: valuable substance) or an economic good if it is reintroduced into the economic cycle, although used oil polluted with PCB is really waste. But if this used oil is used in cement factories as a heating material, it is considered a recycled resource, and does not have to fulfil the strict requirements for waste.

Similarly, in the case of the sintering plant in Dortmund, flue dust and role scale (a by-product of the sintering process) were burned. Had this role scale not been burned, it would have had to be disposed of at great expense. Also, its use saved heating energy. This way the company saved millions. But dioxin emissions were dramatically high. Since all these are examples of recycling, the state can boast a high recycling rate. In addition, there is a strong push for privatizing the waste disposal industry and for giving thermal treatment of waste (i.e. incineration) precedence over cold decomposition or fermentation.

Since it is becoming more and more difficult to build hazardous waste dumps over the protests of the population, politicians are looking for new ways of dealing with the accumulating incineration residues.

In 1990—a year of gubernatorial elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and federal parliamentary elections—a recommendation of 0.1 nanogram/m^3 was officially pronounced The activated carbon filter made it possible for the proprietors to keep within the limits of the 0.1 ng/m^3 TE standard when pre-arranged inspections are carried out. But it tremendously increases the amount of dioxin dust in the filter.

Since it is becoming more and more difficult to build hazardous waste dumps over the protests of the population, politicians are looking for new ways of dealing with the accumulating incineration residues. Closed-down mines in the Ruhr are being used as deposits for highly poisonous filter dust. 6.5 million US tons of waste are scheduled to be deposited there within the next few years. The population does not have any participatory power in the planning process because special mining laws apply that exclude the public and because the highly noxious hazardous waste has been declared an economic resource. What is stored in the mines cannot be taken out again. If the poisonous substances get into the ground water and thus poison the drinking water, the waste stored there cannot be removed.

The remaining residues of incinerators like slag and ash are to be deposited underground as well, or are being used in road construction and were used in the past for filling playgrounds.

No holds are barred in trying to fight the population's anxiety over the dangers of dioxins. Dioxin measurements in recent years in the ground, blood and mother's milk have not shown increases. This may be due to successful resistance, namely the activated carbon filter in incinerators. Nonetheless it is interesting to note that the measurements in North Rhine-Westphalia have turned out to be far below what experts had expected. Of course, there is no right-to-know for the population, no controls, no participation. The campaign for such a right is important because we know that the results depend to a large extent on the method of measuring.

In each dioxin scandal in recent years (Kieselrot, the high readings in Duisburg and Dortmund, and a fire of a warehouse full of PVC-based plastic materials in the town of Lengerich), the state government succeeded in not finding heightened dioxin levels in the people examined compared to groups from unpolluted areas.

At the same time the dioxin limits were raised. In 1987 in a study sponsored by the state government of Hesse, the maximum dose that was not to be exceeded was 0.1 picogram TE per body weight and day. In 1990, a maximum dose of 1.0 picogram TE per body weight and day was introduced on the federal level and nowadays the tendency is towards having a dose of 1-10 picograms. The same is true for ground pollution limits.

The state governments always find experts who will admit that dioxin is highly poisonous but claim at the same time that an emission of 250 g per year from one chimney does not have any harmful consequences for the population and only needs to be lowered as a preventive measure.

Clearly, due to the increasingly relaxed political views on dioxin regulation, it now can be found:

Sidebar: Die Grünen: Strategies for Resisting Dioxin

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