Long the bane of poor, misunderstood New Jersey, the chemical industry is increasingly shifting production to developing countries, where production costs are lower. Doing dirty business in the developing world also has the added benefit of fewer regulations — as evidenced by that month-plus long gas rig blaze in Nigeria earlier this year — which reduce costs for producers. But lax regulations come at the expense of the public health and the environment, costs that may reach $90 billion in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020.
The newest Global Chemicals Outlook report (PDF) released by the United Nations Environment Program notes that global chemical production is growing, and that growth is fastest in developing countries. By 2020, chemical production is expected to grow 25 percent in the U.S., that number stands at 40 percent for Africa and a whopping 59 percent and 66 percent for India and China, respectively.
That growth is partly due to manufacturing shifts, and also largely reflects growth in consumption, especially as chemicals penetrate more and more of what we buy. (The worldwide chemical market has grown from $171 billion in 1970 to over $4.1 trillion today.) That all leads to millions of tons of waste and byproducts, as the UNEP notes:
Of the 5.7 million metric tons of pollutants released or disposed of in North America in 2006, 1.8 million metric tons were of chemicals considered persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic, 970,000 metric tons were known or suspected carcinogens and 857,000 metric tons were of chemicals that are considered reproductive or developmental toxicants.
In developing countries, that boom was even bigger. According to an AP report, benzene consumption in China grew more than 800 percent from 1990 to 2008, compared with 13 percent in the U.S. during that same time frame. The UNEP report states that poisonings from agricultural and industrial chemicals is in the top five leading causes of death worldwide, and those deaths will likely see disproportionately larger increases in developing nations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where international development has seen little growth in infrastructure and wealth for local workers, the increased health costs will outpace the amount of international aid flowing in, aid that’s crucial for keeping the region’s feeble economies moving even now.
Those cost estimates don’t factor in indirect costs, which have the potential to be much higher. Whether released into land, sea, or air, that waste eventually makes its way into all three via normal environmental processes. Combined with the fact that many pollutants are persistent and bioaccumulative (they stick around in living tissue), there’s no real way to release pollutants without them permeating the environment. That means delicate fisheries, farms, and water supplies are all at risk.
Really, the situation is rather simple: As consumption increases, more chemical production will have to come from somewhere, and developing countries have more growth in demand and are cheaper to produce in. As chemical production shifts, they end up in exactly the places that are most sensitive to pollution thanks to lax regulation and fragile economies. So, yeah, more people clamoring for new gizmos and high-tech clothes mean the world’s poorest places are increasingly becoming its dumping ground.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead