Almost every product we purchase, use in our homes or give to our children contains tens, if not hundreds, of chemicals. The United States chemical industry alone produced US$769.4 billion worth of chemicals in 2012. The electronics that light up our smartphones and make today’s cars safe contain metals, plastics, ceramics and a host of other materials. Even plastic packaging is a complex mixture of molecules, and each one plays a role: they provide the strength, color, texture, elasticity and durability we associate with performance.
Few people would say it’s worth the risk of a hazardous chemical exposure to check football scores or calm a fussy toddler. And consumers in North America and Europe are starting to expect that regulation will protect us from harmful chemicals in the products we buy. Unfortunately hazardous chemicals are still all around us – every time a child picks up a plastic toy, she may be exposed to myriad hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, dermal sensitizers, asthmagens or carcinogens.
Regulators are starting to take steps toward protecting end users from these risks. Consumer awareness and community activism exert pressure on manufacturers, and early-stage legislation is testing the waters of government involvement in the United States.
But when considering the dangers of hazardous chemicals in our products, manufacturers often underestimate risk by evaluating only the best-case scenario and considering only consumers. How these products are made by real workers in unregulated environments offers a stark contrast.