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.