Week of 11/21/2004

Dear EarthTalk: 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, AZ

To achieve its pearly white color, most paper goes through a bleaching process that uses chlorine or chemicals derived from it (such as 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 "bio-accumulating" up through the food chain—that is, after one animal consumes another, its body inherits the poisons present in its prey. Humans are also 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 that has 34 pulp and paper mills, there is compelling scientific evidence that dioxins can cause cancer, birth and developmental defects, learning disabilities, increased risk of diabetes, decreased fertility, reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, and suppressed immune systems in people. 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 (CIWMB), "totally chlorine free," or TCF, paper uses alternative methods, including hydrogen peroxide and oxygen, to bleach paper. One small downside of TCF paper is that it can have no recycled content, because 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 that not only rids the bleaching process of chlorine, but can also have up to 100 percent recycled content. For paper to be labeled PCF, it needs a minimum of 30 percent "post-consumer" content (paper actually once used and not just trimmings from print shops), and the re-bleaching process cannot include chlorine-containing compounds. It"s not totally chlorine-free, because chlorine may have been in the post-consumer 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 U.S. "Dioxin cannot be detected in wastewater being discharged from [ECF] pulp and paper mills," says the trade group.

CONTACTS: Chlorine Free Products Association, (847) 658-6104, http://www.chlorinefreeproducts.org; California Integrated Waste Management Board, (916) 341-6000, http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov; American Forest and Paper Association, (800) 878-8878, http://www.afandpa.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard about mad cow disease, but what is mad deer disease?

—Janet Bristol, Eugene, OR

"Mad deer disease" is a transmissible disease similar to mad cow disease, but it occurs in deer and elk instead of cattle. Called "spongiform encephalopathy," but also known as "chronic wasting disease" (CWD), it was first discovered in 1967 on a Colorado wildlife research facility. It has since spread slowly through the mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk populations, mostly in western states. Mile Miller of the Colorado Division of Wildlife describes CWD as "an epidemic occurring in slow motion."

The disease is found mostly in Colorado and Wyoming, where it infects about one percent of free-ranging deer, but about five percent of mule deer on game farms, due to the animals" closer proximity to one another which facilitates the spread of the disease. Infected animals have also been found on game farms in Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Game farms sell meat and the velvet from antlers (marketed as a health supplement or aphrodisiac), or sometimes ship live animals to other states to bulk up their supply of hunting targets. Thus one farm with infected animals could potentially spread the disease far and wide.

Some health analysts fear that there could be a link between mad deer disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a similar type of spongiform encephalopathy that kills humans when brain proteins called "prions" deform, forcing other brain cells to degenerate along with them. Between 1997 and 2000, two deer hunters and a woman who regularly ate venison (deer meat) died from CJD. According to Dr. Ermias Belay of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the three deaths raise concern because of the unusually young age of those infected. All three were under 30, while CJD usually only strikes people older than 45.

While scientists found no conclusive evidence linking the deaths to mad deer disease, they also couldn’t rule it out. And a National Institutes of Health report released last year warned that the transmission of spongiform encephalopathy between species is possible: "Infected tissues could be eaten by predators or enjoyed by aficionados of wild game. And carcasses could be rendered for feed that (by error) could find its way to cattle."

Since 2002, hunters have donated some 200,000 deer and elk kills each fall to scientists looking to tabulate the prevalence of spongiform encephalopathy in American deer and elk populations in efforts to establish links to CJD. But the very states where mad-deer infection is highest also rely heavily on the sale of hunting licenses, making them loath to publicize the fact that eating venison could be dangerous. And indeed, even while scientists continue to look for clues, thousands of hunters and their families continue to eat venison with little if any concern about CJD.

CONTACTS: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (800) 311-3435, http://www.cdc.gov; National Institutes of Health: Prion Diseases, http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/priondis.htm; National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center, (216) 368-0587, http://www.cjdsurveillance.com.

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