Water contamination – The cost of doing business?

Water pollution sign on the Waimakariri River

A recently published article in the New York Times discussed an outrageous case of conscious water contamination by one of the corporate chemical giants, DuPont. In his extensive and detailed article, New York Times reporter Nathaniel Rich gave a well-researched account of the work of lawyer Rob Bilott, who despite being employed by a large corporate law firm in Cincinnati decided to take the case of the Wilbur Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. In the process of fighting for Tennant, whose “cows were dying left and right,” which he believed was the work of DuPont, Bilott “became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The case, which Bilott took on in the late 1990s, is still ongoing and over the past 16 years he has collected a mountain of evidence showing the irresponsible behavior of the chemical giant DuPont that had and still has consequences for the health and well being of thousands of people in West Virginia, Ohio, and beyond. The chemical PFOA, which DuPont used among other things in the production of Teflon pans, is known to cause health problems like kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, preeclampsia and ulcerative colitis, and DuPont knew about the potential health problems of PFOA use early on.

While this is just one case, the impact of chemicals like PFOA goes much further. As Rich notes, PFOA has been detected in drinking water as well as animals far away from West Virginia. Furthermore, “PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies produced and released into the world without regulatory oversight.” Thus, private companies are largely left to regulate themselves when it comes to their use of potentially toxic chemicals, which today can be found in many regular household products and clothing.

This examples illustrates what Garrett Hardin in 1968 termed “The Tragedy of the Commons.” John S. Dryzek explained this tragedy in his 2013 book The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses as follows:

Facing a decision about whether or not to put an extra cow on the village commons, each rational self-interested peasant will recognize that the benefits of the extra cow accrue to himself alone, whereas the costs (stress upon the commons) are shared with the other villagers. Thus all villagers will quickly put more cows on the commons, which will in turn be destroyed. (29)

In the case of PFOA and other chemicals, large corporations like DuPont reap the profits from using them, while local communities as well as consumers pay the price when they suffer the health consequences associated with the use of these chemicals. In other words, a corporation may internalize the profits but externalize the costs of doing business as DuPont did in the case described by New York Times journalist Rich. (Note: Externality is an economic term that refers to the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.) We generally rely upon government to regulate private enterprise to prevent the externalization of costs. But considering the substantial leverage that corporations–especially the largest ones–have on government at all levels through campaign finance (see Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost) and the threat of cutting jobs, it is not surprising that the government so far only regulates a tiny fraction of those 60,000+ chemicals that are used frequently by corporations.

And as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan shows, the government is not always doing a better job of protecting citizens from toxins either. In an apparent attempt to cut costs, Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which is highly corrosive. Yet, “the state Department of Environmental Quality wasn’t treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law.” Due to the lack of treatment, lead—“a well-known and potent neurotoxin” according to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Hurley Children’s Hospital—and iron began to leach into the water for a two full years. Recently, the National Guard stepped in and is now helping provide bottled water and filters to Flint residents, but a lot of the damage has already been done. Though most residents blame the Michigan state government, which had budgetary control over Flint since the emergency manage was put in place in 2011, the former Mayor of Flint Dayne Walling recently said that he regretted “all of it… All the way back to seeing the city move to a different drinking water source. You can’t put a dollar amount of the devastation to our community, our kids, and it was completely avoidable.”

Both of these cases show that the focus on profits and cutting costs is harmful to the well-being of citizens across the country. Former Flint Mayor Walling is right; you can’t put a dollar amount on the costs that these actions have led to. So why aren’t we rethinking our priorities? The singular focus on quarterly profits, GDP growth, and cost-cutting initiatives hurts all of us. We need to base our decisions on indicators that actually measure how well we are doing as a society. And we need to prioritize people’s health and well being over economic growth.

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