WASHINGTON — The World Wide Web is increasingly becoming a wide-open window to information that makes businesses very nervous: detailed listings of potentially dangerous chemicals and what factories they come from.
Business groups complain that the information is sometimes not put in proper context. Environmental organizations and governments, however, argue that the public needs to know this information, and that the Internet sites are built with data provided by industry itself, and already publicly available.
The Environmental Defense Fund launched a Web site in April that gets several million hits a month, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association is responding by starting its own site in coming weeks.
EDF's site, www.scorecard.org, lets users search by zip code, company or key word, giving them maps showing plant locations and detailed emissions data.
It also lets them rank manufacturing plants by releases of types of toxic chemicals, such as endocrine disrupters or liver toxicants or noncancerous hazards.
EDF bases its information on what businesses report to the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly the Toxic Release Inventory, but puts a much more user-friendly package on it.
CMA's site will contain emissions data and health information for its member companies' plants.
``We believe in this concept of right to know,'' said Jeffrey Van, spokesman for Arlington, Va.-based CMA. ``Has it been perverted? Sure.''
Sites like EDF's do not contain risk-assessment information to gauge health risk, he complained. Van said CMA will put its data into better context.
EDF says its site does provide the context that a decade's worth of TRI data alone did not, such as health effects. And any company listed on the EDF site can write a 500-word response that EDF displays prominently, said David Roe, senior attorney with the New York-based group.
The EDF site also does not simply report volumes of chemicals released, because some chemicals obviously are more dangerous than others, Roe said. Instead, EDF uses a complicated benzene-equivalency rating that industry relies on to make comparisons between chemicals.
``What the score card has done is provide more context than ever before,'' Roe said.
Not putting information in proper context on the Internet creates fear, said William Kovacs, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He spoke in an Oct. 1 telephone interview.
Kovacs told an Aug. 31 meeting of the Plastics and Chemical Industries Association of Australia that environmentalists are more skilled at using the Internet than businesses, and that is a problem for an industry with product names that can sound frightening to the average person.
``The biggest threat to plastics and chemicals, and perhaps all industry, is the ability for anyone to disseminate incorrect information cheaply to the entire world,'' he told the Australian group. ``The plastics and chemical industry is completely unprepared to deal with this very stark reality.''
One area where the public right to know and public safety are coming into conflict is over an EPA proposal to put on the Internet emergency management plans from 66,000 of the nation's manufacturing plants.
EPA wants to put the impact of worst-case scenarios of industrial accidents on the Internet, including injuries and deaths. But that is prompting the FBI and Department of Justice to argue it would give terrorists a searchable database of the most valuable targets.
CMA does not want that information on the Internet, but thinks it should be shared with the local public, Van said. He said information about how plants manage risk should be put on the Internet.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is considering the law enforcement concerns and will likely have a decision in a month.