1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

The poisoning of the Rhine

On the 9th of November 1986 a fire at the enormous Sandoz chemicals factory in Basle led to 30 tons of poisonous chemicals, including about 200 kilogrammes of mercury, being washed into the river Rhine as firemen fought to bring the blaze under control. The 40-mile-long wave of poison caused by the incident flowed along the Rhine from Germany into the Netherlands affecting the drinking water of 20 million people. In the upper reaches of the Rhine most plant life, thousands offish, water birds and a quarter of a million eels are estimated to have died and although most of the fish seem to have survived in the lower Rhine they face death from starvation because many insects and crayfish upon which they feed have perished. Such is the severity of the pollution that it could take up to twenty years before the ecological balance of the river is fully restored.

Pollution of the air, soil, rivers and oceans is not a new problem: the smoke-blackened older public buildings in most of Britain’s major towns and cities (where restoration has not been carried out); the descriptions of polluted cities and rivers by writers such as Blake, Engels, Kingsley, Dickens, Carpenter, Gissing and Orwell; the terrible death tolls of the early 1950s caused by smog all bear testimony to the way in which industrialisation has ruined the environment and damaged workers’ health.

There always have been, and always will be, incidents leading to results that are not foreseen or intended. These accidents may be caused by human error, circumstances beyond human control (such as earthquakes) or lack of knowledge to anticipate all the consequences of an action.

But many of the incidents which occur under capitalism are not, strictly speaking, accidents. The drive to produce profits leads to methods of production designed to ensure that the maximum amount of surplus value is derived from workers’ labour power. Human error is much more likely to be increased where work is repetitive, boring and alienating or where the hours of work are long and exhausting. Often workers are kept in ignorance of potentially dangerous substances that they are working with and are consequently unable to take adequate safety precautions. In some instances safety equipment may not be supplied, or removed to increase productivity. Substances are used in agriculture, the drug and chemical industries often with little knowledge of their effects on the environment, the workers using them or. in the case of medicines, the patients consuming them.

But even when hazards are well known and documented the requirement of profitability overrides human needs and dangerous substances continue to be used. There are, for example, about 2000 asbestos-induced deaths a year in Britain although the dangers of using asbestos were pointed out in a Home Office report in 1906. Thalidomide and “Opren” continued to be used after it was known that they had caused deaths and deformities.

It is not unusual for safety standards to be inadequate or ignored altogether to cut production costs. In 1976 workers at the Life Science Products factory in Hopewell. Virginia were found to be working in an environment that was laden with dust from the insecticide “Kepone”. The nearby James river also had to be closed because of the severity of the contamination. The pollution of the environment and the risk to workers at the Life Science Products factory (who suffered from severe headaches, tremors and, in some cases, sterility) was not caused by lack of knowledge of the risks to health of using “Kepone” but, as an investigation showed, a pollution control system had not been installed because it would have affected profitability.

The evacuation of Seveso due to a discharge of dioxin has not led to a curtailment of products which contain the poison. And the local population were not informed of the dangers to health for at least ten days after the incident although the manufacturers. Roche, were aware within forty-eight hours that dioxin had been released.

The disaster at Bhopal, where hundreds of cases of serious poisoning in the local community resulted, due to a discharge of poisonous chemicals demonstrates how multinational companies avoid health and safety legislation by switching production to underdeveloped countries where regulations are lax and, consequently, greater profits can be made. And the ease with which production can be moved emphasises the limitations of reforms, especially if attempted on a local or national basis, when workers’ organisations are taking on the power of multinational corporations.

One feature of the poisoning of the Rhine has been the comparative lack of reporting of the incident: a major European river has been poisoned, creating an ecological disaster which has affected, and will continue to affect, most of the marine life; the drinking water of 20 million people has been polluted and there could be considerable problems in providing alternative supplies, particularly in years of drought. But newspaper coverage in Britain was, in many instances, relegated to the inside pages. The trivial activities of the parasitical royal family and the ratings war between the television soap operas continued to dominate the news instead. Perhaps the public has become so immune to news of industrial “accidents” that they have ceased to shock: the pollution of our environment has come to be seen as part of the “natural order” of things.

Only a week before the fire at Basle, a chemical plant explosion near the resort of Varna on the Black Sea coast is thought to have killed 17 people. The Bulgarian authorities failed to provide details of the incident and, therefore, the extent of the damage is not known, making it more difficult to protect the public.

It was also reported that the survival of Indian tribes in Brazil is threatened because BP’s mining subsidiary working in conjunction with Bruscan, a Canadian company, had set up a local network of more than 100 companies covering 54 million acres.

Both of these news items took up only a paragraph in The Independent and were probably omitted altogether by some of the tabloids. And yet both of these items illustrate two features of capitalism: social needs are always secondary to the need to make profits and commercial interests are protected by secrecy even when this is detrimental to the well-being of the community.

As yet it is far too soon to be able to say with any degree of accuracy what went wrong at the Sandoz chemicals factory at Basle. It is important, however, to try to prevent such incidents happening in the future. But whilst capitalism remains, dangerous materials will continue to be used if they are cheaper, and the competitive nature of capitalism prevents information from being shared which would reduce the risk of accidents elsewhere.

In a socialist society information could be shared: a society in which competition gives way to co-operation would have no need for secrets. Dangerous substances would not be used just because they are cheaper — where possible safer substitutes would be found.

Socialists aim to establish a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. In a moneyless, socialist society in which free access to goods replaces the artificial scarcities of capitalism, production can be planned properly and the world’s resources conserved instead of being wasted or damaged for the sake of making a quick profit.

The lessons of Basle, Seveso, Bhopal and Chernobyl have taught the workers that under capitalism “accidents” will continue to occur. And, although enquiries are conducted, and scapegoats found, production continues as before. Indeed, in the aftermath of Chernobyl the Russian government has stated that it intends to increase its nuclear power programme instead of reducing it.

The risk to the world posed by the threat of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, dangerous industrial processes and indiscriminate waste of resources has never been greater in spite of all the efforts of reformists and ecological pressure groups Only the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism can halt the destruction. We must destroy capitalism before it destroys the earth.

Carl Pinel