A toxic monument to a green future

Tony Blair must rethink plans for using PVC in the Millennium Dome, says Peter Melchett
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The Independent Online
The PVC Millennium Dome at Greenwich is staggering from one crisis to another. At the end of last month, the environmental problems posed by the use of PVC started to receive some media attention. Since then, the Dome's troubles have intensified.

Greenpeace first tried to meet the company responsible for the Greenwich Dome over a year ago. The meetings we requested were constantly put off. At the end of last year, we heard, unbelievably, that the dome might be coated with PVC. We immediately urged the company to drop the idea, telling them in detail about the concerns that environmentalists, scientists and many governments have about PVC. Just before the election, the company announced they were going for a PVC dome.

Manufacturing and disposing of PVC inevitably creates dioxins - there is no way this can be avoided; the only choice is where the dioxins end up (in the air, in water or in the soil). The PVC used for softeners is now thought to be a hormone disrupter. And the usual stabilisers are cadmium and lead, or some other toxic heavy metal.

After the election, we immediately raised our concerns with Chris Smith, then the new minister responsible for the Dome. Before we got a reply, we heard that the Cabinet would be discussing the Dome's future, so we wrote directly to Tony Blair.

A few days later, apparently in the face of universal opposition from his Cabinet, Tony Blair backed the PVC Dome. In personal articles in both The Sun and The Mirror, he said his Dome must leave a lasting legacy - presumably he was not thinking of the dioxins created by the Dome's PVC. At that stage, it seems, no one on the Millennium Commission, in the New Millennium Experience Company or in the Cabinet had given any serious thought to the environmental impact of the Dome, or of its manufacture or disposal.

Everyone's attention was focused on where the exhibition would be (London or Birmingham) and on what would be in it. Far from placing environmental concerns at the heart of government, as the Labour manifesto promised, Tony Blair has ignored them. Many environmentalists have queried how deep New Labour's concerns for the environment really run. Undoubtedly individuals in the Cabinet do care, but our political culture has not yet woken up to the fact that the environment is no longer simply an optional extra.

PVC is being banned or phased out in numerous other European cities and countries. After a two-year court battle, the Austrian Supreme Court held that Greenpeace was justified in calling PVC an "environmental poison". The idea that any forward-looking, environmentally friendly millennium project would feature massive use of PVC is absurd. On 30 June this year, two days after our concerns were finally reported in the press, Greenpeace received an invitation to meet Peter Mandelson, the new minister for the Dome. After our meeting with him on 3 July, the chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company, Jennifer Page, said that the PVC it was using would not contain either cadmium or lead, nor pose any danger to people. We were surprised to discover from our investigations a few days later in Germany (where the Dome's PVC covering is being made) that the PVC for the Dome had not yet been ordered, and even the German company manufacturing the material did not yet know what would be in it.

As a result of front-page reporting of our criticisms in the Independent on Sunday, more information about the proposed PVC Dome has emerged this week. Peter Mandelson has made a series of acutely embarrassing admissions. First, the PVC Dome is going to end its life in an incinerator. Incinerating PVC creates dioxins, known to disrupt immune systems and cause cancer in humans. It is partly because of the dangers that PVC poses when it is incinerated that the Swedish government's chemical advisory committee has said that PVC products in Sweden should be phased out by 2007. Peter Mandelson has also revealed that the softener that will be used for the Dome is nonyl-phthalate. This is almost certainly di-isononyl-phthalate (DINP), a complex mix of phthalates that has been shown, in laboratory tests, to have a wide range of toxic effects, including effects on organ development, cancer incidence and reproductive capabilities. The official European Union label for DINP used in the laboratory warns "may cause cancer", "reproductive hazard", "possible risk of irreversible effects". If it is used as a softener for the PVC Dome, our scientific advisers say, some DINP will evaporate and wash out into the environment.

Though claiming to want to mount an exhibition which will be about a clean and safe future, the New Millennium Experience Company appears to be the most environmentally illiterate company Greenpeace has come across in recent years. It claims, with a bewildering ignorance of basic chemistry, that there is "safe and unsafe PVC". Even ICI admits that it is impossible to make PVC without creating the conditions in which dioxins will also be produced.

This PVC farce contains elements of tragedy too. Richard Rogers has drawn up an imaginative outline plan for the whole site (much larger than the area covered by the Dome). Ideas include environmentally sensitive housing, creation of new wildlife habitats, lakes and a linear park. John Prescott is developing some of these plans with his competition for an eco-village, and plans for new public transport links using the river. These ideas have great potential, but are currently overshadowed by the PVC Dome.

The New Millennium Experience Company claims that all the alternatives to PVC it has considered "turn out to have equally difficult problems"! It is wrong - but when even this doomed Dome's promoters agree that it has problems, the time really has come for Tony Blair to order a rethink.

Lord Melchett is executive director of Greenpeace UK