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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Profit Margins Take Priority over Disease Prevention

Posted on September 1, 2010

By Steven G. Gilbert, PhD DABT

This essay is in response to: What is the key obstacle to implementing an effective, health-protective, chemicals management system?

“Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public.” -- An executive at Brown & Williamson, an R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1969

The primary impediment to developing and implementing an effective chemical management system is the imbalance between the motivation for corporations to make maximum profits and the valuation of human and ecological health. The US economic system encourages companies to avoid paying the full the costs of producing goods and services, costs that are often externalized or carried by individuals, society, and the environment. The government has attempted to control excessive abuses through regulations and policies that encouraged, or in some cases require, corporations to develop chemical management systems. Unfortunately these policies provide only the bare minimum of protection to human and environmental health.

Very basic systemic change in corporate and societal priorities is necessary to create a nation-wide chemicals management system that protects health. With the current corporate and economic structures, there is little return on investment for preventing disease. In fact, it may be just the opposite. Some segments of the economy make money from treating or managing injuries, illnesses, and disease, while society and individuals are burdened with the costs of these ailments. An important first step is for the health effects and full human and environmental cost of chemical exposures to be communicated clearly to the public and policy makers. Another necessary step is for disease prevention to be given a higher priority in policy-making. 

The fundamental problem is that corporations, whether publicly or privately held, have a responsibility to their owners to increase revenue and profits. This is typically done by reducing and externalizing costs while selling more product. The tobacco industry is the classic example: tobacco companies sell a product in which users inhale a variety of chemicals that clearly have major health consequences, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, while used as directed. The public assumes the costs of treating these diseases through health care; in other words, the companies externalize the cost of their product onto the public. The companies also create clever advertising campaigns to increase the use of their products. All this occurs while the tobacco industry maintains that the hazards of tobacco products are not proven, and the industry resists any regulation. 

There are many other examples of profit margins taking priority over disease prevention. Lead-based paint, largely banned in Europe in the 1920s because of concerns about hazards to children’s health, was commercially used in the US until 1978 due to political pressure from the lead industry. We continue to struggle with children being unnecessarily exposed by lead paint, which affects over one million US children even today.

Oil dispersants, pesticides, flame retardants used to fight forest fires, cosmetics and cleaning products all have at least one thing in common: the manufactures claim that the chemical ingredients are confidential business information (CBI). Industries’ position has been that the specific formulation of their products provides a competitive advantage and that full disclosure of ingredients would reduce profitability. The findings of testing that are conducted are often classified as confidential. This results in a lack of information, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the public and for health care providers to evaluate the possible adverse human and ecological health effects of these products.

The recent tragic accident on the Deep Horizon drilling platform and the subsequent release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is a recent illustration of how the failure to disclose information can hamper decision-making. A list of ingredients in the oil dispersant was released not by the manufacturer, though it was later released by the EPA. Failure to disclose in a timely manner the ingredients of all possible oil dispersants, as well as all available research on the variety of oil dispersants, makes it difficult to judge which dispersant might be most effective and least hazardous to human, animal, and environmental health. In this case both more research and more disclosure may have facilitated better decision-making. 

Our challenge is not a lack of technology to deal with problems or a lack of science to understand an issue, but a failure to communicate and discuss the information we do have and the total costs to society of a particular action. Values should be included in this discussion. What do we value most? Is it human, animal, and environmental health? Is it the ability of corporations to make the maximum amount of money for their managers and owners? What is the balance between corporate profitability and corporate responsibility to society? While for many individuals the answer is clearly health, this is not reflected in our governance or regulation. 

A chemical management system that is truly protective of health and environment will be possible only when industry, government, and the public recognize the extraordinary value of working together to create a healthy and sustainable environment as well as healthy and sustainable corporation, one where everyone can reach and maintain their full potential. The innovation and creativity that our current economic system has inspired should be celebrated and encouraged, but not at the expense of exposing ourselves and other organisms to chemicals of unknown hazard. Our current system is out of balance and needs to include a more robust assessment of the cost to human and ecological health. 

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Sylvia Swan said ..

The question that I cannot answer is the children of the corporations and federal governments are exposed also; does it just not matter?

September 24, 2010
Lois Gibbs said ..

Great Job! Can't agree more.

September 15, 2010
Jack said ..

Perhaps a very expensive federal tax for all producers and importers based on "what data you have not made publicly available for all to review about your product's component substances" would align the "market forces" with public benefit.

September 15, 2010
Gladys Brown said ..

Thank you! This is an all encompassing issue that can only be solved when we clearly and fully address the ethos of the American people. What do we value? What national values can we fully embrace?

September 5, 2010

Comments closed.