Rights and Wrongs of Knowing in Chemical Conflict

Mariann Lloyd-Smith, University of Technology, Sydney


In the context of ‘toxic disputes’ over chemicals and hazardous waste, it has been argued that greater ‘visibility’ of chemical contamination issues would facilitate better public recognition of the conflict and thereby bring speedier remedial action by social and political institutions. However, greater awareness of chemical hazards is dependent on the public’s access to information and in many chemical conflicts the concentration of information, and thereby power, resides with the select groups of industry and government. Following the chemical contamination tragedies in Bhopal in 1984 and Seveso in 1976, support for society’s right to know about chemical hazards grew. Yet decades later, as we face the new century with burgeoning chemical use and the growing problems of waster destruction, the rhetoric of community right to know still significantly outstrips the reality. Environmentally sustainable chemical decision-making requires reliable, comprehensive and accessible information. Yet, the legal and regulatory frameworks in which toxic disputes take place do not allow for an open and equal exchange of information among participants. All regulatory regimes in Australia concerning chemicals and hazardous waste provide extensive protection for commercial business information (CBI) with little consideration of the public interest. This paper reviews the restrictions faced by affected individuals, non-government organisations and the general community when accessing chemical information in multiparty toxic disputes.

Mariann Lloyd-Smith is the national coordinator for the National Toxic Network Inc. and also works as private consultant in community information systems development. She is currently completing a research project investigating community access to chemical and technical data for her PhD based at the Law Faculty of the University of Technology, Sydney.

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