Op-ed: Why is the chemical industry pitting public health against economic growth?

Recent reporting on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed rules that would restrict or ban an array of toxic chemicals used in industrial manufacturing presented the regulation as a ‘tough choice’ for a White House seeking to balance its economic agenda and public health.

The “public health vs economic growth” framing is unhelpful and demonstrably false. The only “tough choice” to be made is whether to stick with an outdated and toxic model that benefits a few regressive companies or to focus on innovation in chemistry that catches up to our competitors abroad and saves on American medical bills to boot.

Related: What it will take for the EU to be a model for safe chemicals

To understand why, let’s tally the costs of continuing business as usual. A report just published on March 21 in the Annals of Global Health estimates that in 2015 the health-related costs of plastic production – the single most common use of industrial chemical manufacturing today – exceeded $250 billion globally. And, in the U.S. alone, the annual health costs of disease and disability caused by four industrial chemicals – PBDE, BPA, DEHP and PFAS – approach a staggering $1 trillion. Considering that there are more than 86,000 industrial chemicals in circulation, it seems likely that the actual health costs are much, much higher.

A growing emerging body of research supports those seemingly astronomical estimates. A 2015 study published by the Lancet Group estimated that the cost of disease mediated by exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the U.S. could exceed $340 billion annually. A 2022 cohort study used historical data to link phthalate exposure in the US to roughly 100,000 premature deaths and a resulting $40 billion in societal costs annually.

There are serious climate risks too. A 2022 study from Lund University in Sweden found that petrochemicals are responsible for a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions when researchers evaluate their full lifecycle, which might include everything from a fracking well in Pennsylvania to a raft of Styrofoam disintegrating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. More recently, the Minderoo Foundation published an analysis showing that cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions from plastics alone – a subset of total petrochemical use – were roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of Russia.

Critically, the plastics and petrochemicals industry has known about the health-harming effects of its products for decades. In the 1970s, research by 3M scientists showed conclusively that compounds in the PFAS forever chemical family bioaccumulate in the human body and pose significant health risks. Yet rather than remove the chemicals from use and develop safe alternatives, the industry doubled down on defending their products, resulting in the universal PFAS contamination that can be found in every American and every American community today.

EPA’s oversight is important

EPA Michael Regan

Status quo chemistry is costing us money and shortening our lives. To make matters worse it’s also standing in the way of necessary innovation and likely impairing economic growth. By not incorporating the cost of health and environmental harms of petrochemical production and use, the existing industry enjoys an artificially low cost of doing business, thus hindering new researchers and companies seeking to develop healthier, more sustainable chemical products.

The European Union (EU) has found an approach that could translate. Europe is pursuing a “Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability” roadmap that puts innovation at its core while strengthening the concept of “no data, no market.” This can only be achieved by testing the chemicals before they enter the market with the best of today’s biomedical science, including tests for endocrine disruption.

The European approach centered on safer solutions is already in action at the state level in the U.S. – from Maine to Washington state. Corporations are taking the lead as well, enacting ever more stringent chemical policies to protect their workers and customers.

Related: The Titans of Plastic

The EPA’s oversight is important. So is preventing the U.S. petrochemical industry from expanding with a new generation of toxic projects that will extend the health-harming and economy-stifling status quo for decades. Many of these projects are located in disadvantaged communities that are already severely polluted – places like the Gulf Coast of Texas, “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, and the Ohio River Valley. That’s why Michael Bloomberg recently launched a new campaign, Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution, that will block the expansion of more than 120 proposed petrochemical and plastic projects concentrated in three target geographies – Louisiana, Texas and the Ohio River Valley – and will also work to establish stricter rules for existing plants to safeguard the health of American communities.

The EPA’s proposed rules represent a critical step towards leveling a playing field that has enriched the few and harmed the many for far too long. Now is the time to unleash the innovative brilliance of American scientists and companies in pursuit of chemistry that is truly safe and sustainable by design, from the production facility to the store shelves and into our homes. Our health and our climate cannot wait another moment.

Linda Birnbaum is former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Scholar in Residence at Duke University. Terry Collins is a Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon and founder of Sudoc.