The Toxins Return
Directed by Inge Altmeier and Reinhard Hornung (2009)
The Toxins Return is a German documentary about the failure of western governments to regulate the toxic chemicals present in their imports from third world countries.
Most of the film focuses on textiles. Textile manufacturing has virtually collapsed in the developed world, with most multinational corporations moving their factories to Asian countries that pay sweat shop wages. Unsurprisingly these third world countries also make no effort to regulate the toxic chemicals used to bleach, “soften” and dye these textiles – nor the toxic pesticides used to protect them from insect pests during their long journey to the industrialized world.
Organophosphates, organochlorine compounds and methyl bromide*, toxic chemicals long banned in the EU (but not in the US), are used routinely in China and India, where 90% of European textiles are produced. Most third world textile workers survive at most two years in the industry before they become too ill with work.
Meanwhile German workers who come in direct contact with the shipping containers and/or textiles are also at high risk of developing chronic occupational illnesses.
One-fifth of shipping containers that enter through the Hamburg port are found to contain toxic gasses. In Hamburg, customs workers have special instruments to detect toxic gasses before the containers are opened. Yet only a minority of textile containers are opened in Hamburg. Most on on-shipped by train to the Czech Republic for opening and redistribution of the goods they contain.
The Czech Republic has no protocol in place to protect their workers from toxic shipping containers. Although the EU has laws regulating toxic imports, there is virtually no mechanism in place for enforcing them.
The last third of the documentary examines the toxic chemicals Chinese companies use in children’s toys. Although phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastic toys) have been banned in the EU for more than a decade, all German children tested in a three year study continued to excrete phthalates in their urine (from exposure to imported toys). Phthalates are known to cause reproductive cancers and low sperm counts.
Update: Although the film is eight years, there seems to be little progress in regulating the toxins we are exposed to in imported textiles. See Health Risks in International Container and Bulk Cargo Transport Due to Volatile Toxic Compounds
Progress seems to be somewhat better in terms of phthalates. Last year the US banned six phthalates in toys (including imports) children are likely to put in their month (though the enforcement mechanism is unclear) – see Phalates Information
The EU, meanwhile is proposing a total ban on all phthalates.
*The US ban on methyl bromide only extends to indoor use.