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The true costs of toxic materials

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When you shop for a flooring product, what do you consider? Perhaps you think about the look and feel of the product and its durability. You likely also consider the price. The cost of using a material is influenced by the cost to purchase the product itself, the installation cost, maintenance costs, as well as how long the product will last (when you will have to pay to replace it). These are all internalized costs, paid by the building owner. 

These costs alone, however, do not consider the full impacts of materials along their life cycles. More building industry professionals are paying attention to the content of building products and working to avoid hazardous chemicals in an effort to help protect building occupants and installers from health impacts following chemical exposures. To understand the true, full cost of a product, we must look beyond just the monetary cost of purchasing and maintaining a product. 

Potential chemical impacts during the use phase are important considerations to include in material decisions, and these impacts must be considered in weighing the true cost of a product. As the safer materials movement matures, we must evolve to include a more comprehensive and just consideration of chemical impacts and the true cost of materials. This means considering impacts throughout the full life cycle of a product including extraction/refining, chemical manufacturing, product manufacturing and end of life. The bottom line is that some products can be sold cheaply because someone else is carrying the burden of the true cost.

Hidden costs

Many costs associated with products are more or less hidden when choosing a building material. Just a few of these hidden costs are outlined below:

  1. Toxic chemical impacts on human health: This includes direct medical expenses due to diseases caused or exacerbated by chemical exposures, as well as indirect health-related costs such as loss of productivity in work or school and decreased economic productivity in terms of loss of years of life and loss of IQ points. It also includes the immeasurable costs to quality of life and loss of loved ones.
  2. Environmental contamination costs: Contamination of the environment with toxic chemicals contributes to the human health impacts noted above. In addition, the costs of environmental contamination can include reduced property values in and around contaminated areas, loss of income and food production from the contamination of farms, and the cost of clean-up activities (such as utilities' clean-up of water contamination). Less quantifiable costs include damage to wildlife and ecosystems.
  3. Climate change impacts: Production of chemicals and products is often energy-intensive and based on fossil fuels. Most products contribute to climate change to some extent. Some contribute more than others because of energy use or the release of chemicals with high global warming potential. These greenhouse gas emissions exacerbate climate change, leading to increasingly powerful storms and fires, with increasingly high and recurring costs for recovery. Climate change also magnifies the impacts of toxic chemicals, increasing the human and environmental health costs. 
  4. Environmental injustice: Disproportionately, the health impacts and associated costs throughout the life cycle of products (during manufacturing and at end of life) fall on communities of color and low-income communities. The numerical cost of these impacts may not be quantifiable, but the costs to our society are no less clear as a result.

Quantifying the estimated costs of these impacts is challenging. In most cases, there is just not enough data to estimate the full costs of hazardous chemical impacts. In the sections below, we consider some of the estimated direct and indirect costs of some toxic chemicals to society, summarizing each according to the aforementioned categories.

Toxic chemical impacts on human health

The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that American workers alone suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths per year related to chemical exposures. These chemical exposures are tied to cancers, as well as other lung, kidney, heart, stomach, brain and reproductive diseases. 

While some workers may see greater exposures to hazardous chemicals, all of us are affected. Many of you are likely familiar with PFAS, aka per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS have been used in a wide range of applications, including stain-repellent treatments for carpet and countertop sealers.

The widespread use of PFAS has led to extensive contamination of the planet and people. Increasing research and attention to this group of chemicals has led to some quantitative understanding of the costs to society of their use. A recent publication in Environmental Science and Technology outlined some of the true costs of PFAS chemicals. The authors highlight, "A recent analysis of impacts from PFAS exposure in Europe identified annual direct healthcare expenditures at 52–84 billion euros. Equivalent health-related costs for the United States, accounting for population size and exchange rate differences, would be $37–59 billion annually." Importantly, they further call out, "These costs are not paid by the polluter; they are borne by ordinary people, health care providers, and taxpayers."

And this is just the cost of one group of chemicals. Another recent study estimated the cost of U.S. exposures to phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible, to be about $40 billion or more due to loss of economic activity from premature deaths. While more research is needed, the scale of these estimated costs is staggering. 

Environmental contamination costs

The release of PFAS chemicals has contaminated water supplies globally. About two-thirds of the U.S. population receives municipal drinking water that is contaminated with PFAS. Reducing the levels of PFAS in drinking water can be expensive, and none of the methods fully remove PFAS.

In the Environmental Science and Technology study mentioned above, the authors note, "following extensive contamination by a PFAS manufacturer in the Cape Fear River watershed, Brunswick County, North Carolina, is spending $167.3 million on a reverse osmosis plant and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority spent $46 million on granular activated carbon filters, with recurring annual costs of $2.9 million. Orange County, California estimates that the infrastructure needed to lower the levels of PFAS in its drinking water to the state’s recommended levels will cost at least $1 billion." Again, these costs are typically not paid by the polluter but shifted to the public.

Climate change impacts

Chemicals used in the production of some PFAS are ozone depleters and potent greenhouse gases. New research released in September by Toxic-Free Future, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Mind the Store ties the release of one such chemical, HCFC-22, to the production of PFAS used in food packaging. The reported releases of this one chemical from a single facility is equivalent to "emissions from driving 125,000 passenger cars for a year."

The costs of climate change impacts are immense. For example, the number of billion-dollar disasters and the total cost of damages due to natural disasters have been skyrocketing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes how climate change contributes to the increasing frequency of some extreme weather events with billion-dollar impacts. It outlines the broader context of these extreme weather events saying that, "the total cost of U.S. billion-dollar disasters over the last 5 years (2016-2020) exceeds $600 billion, with a 5-year annual cost average of $121.3 billion, both of which are new records. The U.S. billion-dollar disaster damage costs over the last 10-years (2011-2020) were also historically large: at least $890 billion from 135 separate billion-dollar events. Moreover, the losses over the most recent 15 years (2006-2020) are $1.036 trillion in damages from 173 separate billion-dollar disaster events."

NOAA chart (HBN story)

Figure 1. NOAA chart of billion-dollar disasters and costs (1980-2020) 

Environmental injustice

In the U.S., communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental pollutants. These communities often face hazardous releases from multiple sources due to high concentrations of manufacturing facilities near their homes. The area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known as "Cancer Alley" because of the concentration of industrial activity and the associated elevated cancer risks. Figure 2 (below) maps facilities that report to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) in this area. These are facilities that release or manage hazardous chemicals that require reporting to EPA.  

Geismar, Louisiana, is home to 18 TRI facilities. These facilities reported a total of over 15 million pounds of on-site releases of hazardous chemicals to air, water and land in 2019. Several of these facilities produce chemicals used in the building product supply chain. Two facilities produce chlorine for internal or external production of PVC, which can be used to make pipes, siding, windows, flooring and other building products. Two other facilities manufacture a key ingredient of spray foam insulation, MDI.

Some of these facilities have a history of noncompliance with EPA regulations, one having significant violations for nine of the last 12 quarters and another having significant violations for all of the last 12 quarters. Surrounding communities are affected by regular toxic releases from these facilities and are vulnerable to accidents involving toxic chemicals. For example, an explosion and fire at the vinyl plant in 2012 released thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals, led to a community shelter in place order and shut down roads and a section of the Mississippi River.

More than 5,000 people live within three miles of one or more of these four facilities. This community is disproportionately Black — 35 percent of the population compared to 12 percent in the U.S. overall. Thirty percent of the population is children, with about 1,500 kids younger than 18. This community has a higher estimated risk of cancer from toxics in the air than most places in the U.S. — almost four times the national average.

Figure 2 (HBN)

Figure 2. Map of TRI facilities along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the area known as “Cancer Alley.” The circle indicates a 3-mile radius around the Rubicon facility in Geismar, LA, including the 18 TRI facilities in the city of Geismar. Taken from EPA’s EJScreen. 

Where we go from here

Unfortunately, not enough information is available to make detailed cost accounting broadly possible, and no framework exists for accounting for and comparing the full extent of product costs. Transparency about what is in a product, how the product is made and hazardous emissions — beyond those required to be reported by law — is critical. Programs that place extended responsibility on manufacturers to manage materials at their end of life (as part of extended producer responsibility or EPR) can be a starting point for conversations about the full life-cycle impacts of products and can help hold manufacturers accountable for a broader array of costs, once they are better understood.

The message we hope you take away from this article is that we must move beyond discussions based purely on the material costs or up-front costs of products. We must all work together to acknowledge and shed light on the true costs that toxic chemicals have within our society and on specific communities.

The impacts of hazardous chemicals are, of course, not just monetary — people’s lives are significantly affected in multiple ways. The current system subsidizes cheap products by robbing individuals of the opportunity for healthy lives and for children to play, grow up and enjoy a full and normal life.

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