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Hesperian Health Guides

Hidden Costs and Who Pays Them

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 20: Preventing and Reducing Harm from Toxics > Hidden Costs and Who Pays Them


Many industries that produce and use toxic materials tell people their materials and products are safe and necessary. But this is not true. Many chemicals and products that people once thought were safe and necessary, such as PVC plastic, leaded gasoline, or pesticides, are now known to cause great harm. And many toxic chemicals have safer alternatives, if industry would only seek them out and use them.

Industrial development has many “hidden costs” in the form of damage to the environment and health problems for people. These hidden costs are usually “paid for” by the people who must live with the harm from toxics, not by the industries that cause this harm. Allowing these costs to be disconnected from the businesses engaged in toxic-spreading activity is one way business protects and increases their profits. These profits are often very large, certainly big enough to support safer practices and protection of people’s health.

The people who suffer the worst effects of industrial pollution are usually the workers in polluting industries. Also affected are those who live nearby and cannot move to less polluted places. Many health problems from toxics cannot be cured. So, even when someone can afford costly treatments, and most of us cannot, the harm to our health is often permanent. The real solution is to ban the use of very toxic materials and tightly regulate the use of toxics that are necessary and do not have safer replacements.

A woman speaks.
Industries must pay the cost for safer alternatives and better safeguards for workers, communities, and consumers everywhere.

The cycle of production and toxic waste

Even though industries are responsible for making and using toxic chemicals and toxic wastes, each of us, no matter whether we live in a small village or a large city, is affected by the global cycle of production and waste. Whether it is the plastic bags that are used by people worldwide, or the many toxic substances and production methods that go into making a single computer, car, or cell phone, we are each connected to a worldwide cycle of toxic production and toxic waste.

Producing electronics—and toxic waste
Conveyer belts link metal, chemical,plastic and electronic factories near dumps and a mine.
People are affected by every step in the cycle of production and waste. And at every step, people can work to prevent and reduce harm.

Some common sources of industrial pollution

Oil refineries and electric power plants pollute air, water and soil with toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

Smelters release heavy metals like mercury and lead, and toxins like dioxin.

Factories of all kinds may cause pollution, but can improve their safety by using clean production methods.

Industrial waste dumps leak chemicals into soil and groundwater, causing serious problems for many years.

Incinerators release toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil.

Small-scale industries such as tanneries, electroplating, garment, and battery manufacturers can cause pollution and serious health problems for both workers and people nearby.

Military bases and war zones cause devastating pollution, from radiation to dioxin, and leave harmful waste that may last for many generations.


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