Making Chemistry Safer Is Worth the Price Tag

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Hazardous chemical spills like the one that happened in East Palestine, Ohio, last year when a train derailed, are the tip of the iceberg of our chemical pollution crisis. Scientists say we are rapidly approaching a “planetary boundary,” the point at which industrial chemicals are altering the “vital Earth system processes on which human life depends.” Current concerns regarding the global contamination of food, water and soils with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) demonstrate that the problems we face with toxic chemicals reach far beyond accidents.

Indeed, the World Health Organization conservatively estimates that in 2019, two million lives and 53 million years of life were lost as a result of premature death, illness or disability from exposures to chemicals such as lead, arsenic and benzene. Researchers have estimated the health costs associated with exposure to just one class of chemicals—PFAS in the U.S.—to be at least $5 billion. This doesn’t include the billions of dollars estimated for remediation costs, particularly for contaminated drinking water systems. Another similar study finds the health costs of plastics in general to be nearly $250 billion.

About 90 percent of chemical production is based on readily available fossil fuel–based organic chemistry, including many of the more than 10,000 chemicals used in making plastics. These chemicals have a wide range of potential health effects. In addition to contributing to chemical pollution, the chemical industry is also the largest industrial contributor to climate change through energy use and CO2 emissions.

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The chemical industry’s products are embedded in more than 96 percent of manufactured goods, but current-day industrial chemicals, the majority of which were created decades ago, were designed for cost and performance, not safety and sustainability. Such chemicals and the materials they compose come at significant costs to human, ecosystem and planetary health, costs that we all ultimately bear.

Instead, we need to focus on sustainable chemistry—the development and application of chemicals and chemical processes and products that benefit current and future generations without harmful effects on humans or ecosystems. Thinking about chemistry this way could be the antidote to continued toxic rail disasters, PFAS contamination and other chemical pollution.

However, changing current chemicals and materials will be challenging and costly because preexisting manufacturing facilities would have to be retired or rebuilt to accommodate new molecules and chemical processes. Plus, current chemical processes and manufacturing facilities are deeply embedded into global supply chains; this is called “incumbency.” For example, building a new large scale chemical plant can cost upwards of $1 billion. Research and development, piloting, building new manufacturing capacity, product reformulation, and regulatory and supply chain reviews and approvals all take time and resources. To industry leaders and shareholders, this puts safer, more sustainable chemicals and products at a competitive disadvantage.

But without a shift in thinking and manufacturing, it will ultimately be more expensive not to convert chemistry to more sustainable processes and products, particularly for future generations. With the right policies, economic incentives and leadership, this shift could be easier than we think. For example, the International Monetary Fund estimates governments subsidize fossil fuels by more than $1.3 trillion per year globally, or $7 trillion, if external costs of climate change are included. That translates into about $19 billion dollars per day, more than enough to fundamentally transform chemistry.

Political action matters: our current chemical industry grew from massive and sustained public-private investment and incentives from the 1940s to the 1960s. We could do this again. The wartime Synthetic Rubber Program built the domestic rubber industry in under three years. More recently, government leadership has promoted the renewable energy and the semi-conductor industries, and provided once-in-a-generation funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act; this is the type of coordinated funding we need to overcome investment barriers that could stymie sustainable chemicals and materials.

In addition to direct funding of new facilities, governments worldwide can establish innovative taxes, fees, and incentives that can help level the playing field for sustainable chemicals and materials. Examples include federal incentives in the U.S. to grow biofuels, the Danish pesticide tax, the Swedish “bonus malus” system that discourages people from buying higher carbon-emitting cars by financially supporting them when they buy more environmentally friendly ones. There is also the California Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning Grant Program, which supports dry cleaners who are transitioning to nontoxic and non–smog forming cleaning methods by charging importers a fee for their incumbent problematic chemistry and the product, perchloroethylene (perc).

These are just a few of the many programs and incentives states, the federal government and other nations could pursue in the name of cleaner chemistry.

While government has a critical role in growing sustainable chemistry, so does private investment. As the health and environmental costs of chemicals have been mostly externalized, so too have the risks to investors. Highly coordinated business and investor actions to address climate change are beginning to change this trend and provide a similar model for growing sustainable chemicals and materials. Large settlements for damages caused by problem chemicals are beginning to shift investor thinking around the costs associated with toxic chemicals. A blueprint created by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Sustainable Chemistry Catalyst and the Investor Environmental Health Network outlines the economic rationale for investments in sustainable chemistry that not only address the risks but also the economic benefits.

Addressing the impacts of our current chemicals and materials ultimately will require fundamental shifts in the way we create, use and manage the end of life of chemicals and materials—including major changes to feedstocks, molecules, manufacturing processes, and products. These will need to be staged over decades, given the long research and development arc, capital needs and adoption timelines in chemicals and materials. But we need this to address key priorities for sustainable chemistry (for example replacements to PFAS) and include transitional “better but not good enough” solutions. Small changes, like making benzene, a carcinogenic petrochemical building block, from renewable sources will not be enough.

Of course, this transition will face significant resistance, given the limited availability of sustainable chemistry and the costs of developing, deploying and adopting them. And there will be dire predictions about government overreach, how industrial competitiveness will suffer, and how we won’t have safe drinking water, airplanes or computers without dangerous chemistry. As such, clarifying the externalized and subsidized costs of our current chemicals and materials and shifting incentives to verified sustainable chemistries is an important first step to making a strong economic case for the transition. As the synthetic rubber and Apollo programs have amply demonstrated, when national interests are at stake, governments, along with the private sector, are able to quickly and effectively create the economic and industrial policy conditions to drive outcomes. And when it comes to fossil fuels and petrochemistry, the only sustainable outcome for the health and wellness of the planet and people on it is the one that makes chemistry safer and cleaner.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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