Toxic Waste Essay

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Every year, industrialized nations—via their industries, consumers, and cities—produce millions of tons of toxic waste. These hazards directly and indirectly contribute to high rates of human morbidity and mortality and to ecosystem damage on every continent and ocean system. Since the end of World War II, industrialized nations have generated increasing volumes of hazardous chemical wastes—a result of technological developments across all industry sectors. Reinforcing this trend is a culture of increasing acceptance of such risks in this late modern era.

Every living thing on the Earth has been exposed to some level of human-made toxic substances. Toxic chemicals and their residues pervade our environment and reside in all of our bodies. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in January 2003 in which they tested a sample of more than 9,000 individuals across the United States and found pesticides in 100 percent of their bodies.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, as the production and use of hazardous substances increased exponentially in warfare, agriculture, electronics, and a range of industries in the past six decades. Since that time, the industrial and consumer economies have come to rely heavily upon products made of chlorinated hydrocarbons. The size of the industries associated with these substances (plastics, oil, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides and chemicals) grew in response to increased demand from related industrial sectors and increased consumer demand for related products. The associated by-products were thus intensely toxic and increasingly ubiquitous. Today’s hazardous wastes are the perilous physical and cultural residues of industrial production with deep historical roots, as the rise of urbanism and industrialization in the West went hand in hand with pollution.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a federal U.S. law that defines as “hazardous” those materials that may present a significant threat to human health or the environment when treated, transported, disposed of, stored, or managed improperly. While this definition is technically correct, the emphasis on the idea that such wastes only present a danger when “improperly” handled is misleading, since the very existence of these materials is hazardous. Moreover, the designation of materials as hazardous suggests they lie at the extreme end of the production spectrum when, in fact, they are at the core of any industrial society. The numerous industries that generate hazardous wastes are at the center of industrialized nations, producing employment, revenue, and social benefits. Hazardous wastes are generated by nearly every industry, and those industries that themselves generate few hazardous wastes nonetheless use products from hazardous waste-generating industries. Societies in the global North are particularly implicated in this process because they tend to be the largest producers of such toxins.

There is a general absence of rigorous, longitudinal, and definitive data on the health and environmental risks of our chemical intensive lifestyle. Despite Rachel Carson’s own research and dire warnings in her classic book Silent Spring, we continue to produce and use even more chemicals today and have taken few steps to understand their potential effects before doing so. This is why many scientists, policymakers, and environmental activists are calling for the adoption of the “Precautionary Principle”—the policy that if there is a reasonable indication that a chemical may be unsafe, then we should refrain from using it, even if there is not yet conclusive scientific evidence to that effect. This is a regulatory approach that shifts the burden of proof that chemicals are safe onto the producers rather than allowing them to essentially test these materials on an unwitting public. The current regulatory framework in the United States presumes chemicals are innocent until proven guilty and simply releases them into widespread use until there is reason to believe they are unsafe. The consequences have been disastrous. We have scarcely any toxicological data on the more than 80,000 chemicals in use today. The extent of toxin production and its associated risk in the United States is staggering. The United States produces nearly 6 trillion pounds of chemicals annually. Toxic materials exposure can cause genetic defects, reproductive disorders, cancers, neurological damage, and the destruction of immune systems.

The evidence of risk and disease associated with the production and use of toxic chemicals is mounting. In February 2004, scientists with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 1 in 6 pregnant women in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to pose a risk of brain damage to her developing child. This new estimate is double that of a previous calculation. Mercury is a heavy metal and, when ingested or spilled in the environment in tiny amounts, can wreak havoc on the nervous system of humans and other living beings. Effects include brain, lung, and kidney damage and death. Mercury is released into the environment primarily by power plants and waste incinerators polluting the air, and it is then deposited into oceans and other waterways, where humans and other animals ingest it and it bioaccumulates throughout the food chain.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a little known class of neurotoxic chemicals found in computers, televisions, cars, furniture, and other common products used by consumers every day. PBDEs are ubiquitous not only because they are contained in so many consumer products but because they also leak into the environment during production, use, and disposal. As a result, they are found in household dust, indoor and outdoor air, watersheds, and the body tissues of dozens of animal species around the world, including humans. Women’s breast milk in the United States, Europe, and Canada has been found to have high levels of PBDEs, and most residents in the United States are believed to carry this chemical in their bodies at unsafe levels.

European Union (EU) nations continue to pollute at an alarming volume as well. One in five persons employed in the EU is exposed to carcinogenic agents on the job. Cancer, asthma, and neuropsychiatric disorders are some of the illnesses associated with the 100,000 chemicals and biological agents marketed in the EU, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Approximately two thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals in the EU have not been fully tested for their potential health effects on humans or the environment.

Nonetheless, European environmental organizations have successfully pressured states and industries to pass legislation that would mandate the risk evaluation of chemical substances, such as the REACH policy—the Registration Evaluation Authorization of Chemicals—and the requirement that electronics manufacturers produce their goods with fewer toxic substances and take back those products for recycling at the end of their consumer life—such as the Restriction on Hazardous Substances and the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

Unfortunately, affluence among nations is highly correlated with the production of toxic waste. In the early 1990s, the 24 richest and most heavily industrialized nations collectively produced 98 percent of all hazardous wastes. Today rich nations in general are not reducing the level of hazardous wastes produced. Industrialized nations produce 220 pounds of hazardous waste per person each year. This figure is expected to rise to 320 pounds by the year 2020.

Given the high level of toxicity of everyday life in industrialized nations of the global North, if states and corporations are not planning to reduce toxic inputs into production, then it makes sense to seek outlets for dumping some of the most hazardous substances elsewhere, to reduce exposure to these dangers. A logical approach, then, would be to export these wastes to global South communities.

Toxic Waste Trade and Dumping

Today, it is estimated that nearly 3 million tons of hazardous waste from the United States and other industrialized nations cross international borders each year. Much of this waste is being shipped from wealthy nations in Europe, the United States, and Japan to poor nations in Latin America, the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa. This is what scholars call “environmental inequality” and it is a global problem.

Four factors explain this shift of toxic burdens to the global South. First is the exponential increase in the production of hazardous waste and the emergence of more stringent environmental regulations in northern nations. These changes increased the costs of waste treatment and disposal in the global North, which are magnitudes greater than in most southern nations. Similarly, the typical legal apparatus found in industrialized nations is much more burdensome when compared to the lax regulatory regimes in many nations in the South, which allow for dumping at a fraction of the cost. This is due partly to a comparatively more influential environmental movement sector in industrialized nations, which contributed to building regulatory structures that provide a minimal level of oversight over polluting firms. The unintended consequence of this environmentalist success in the North is to provide an incentive for the worst polluters to seek disposal sites beyond national borders.

A second factor pushing hazardous waste beyond northern borders is the widespread need for fiscal relief among southern nations. This need—rooted in a long history of colonialism and contemporary loan/debt arrangements between southern and northern nations—often leads government officials in the South to accept financial compensation in exchange for permission to dump chemical wastes in their borders. Many observers have described these transactions as economically efficient, while others prefer the term garbage imperialism.

The third driving force behind the international export of hazardous materials is the seemingly inexorable power of economic globalization, which has a logic that dictates that industries must cut costs and increase profits or simply fail. Economic globalization allows and requires firms to access global consumer and commercial markets and labor forces, increase automation, and improve efficiencies in a 24hour economy that is more interdependent than ever. The same logic applies to those industries that manage the hazardous wastes that market economies produce: they must access markets and buyers where the prices allow for increasing profits and reduced costs. This means those wastes will be traded and dumped in nations and regions where, as a result of unstable states and vulnerable economies, pricing will be more profitable to waste management firms and brokers.

The fourth reason for the global waste trade is a racist and classist culture and ideology within global North communities and institutions that view toxic dumping on poor communities of color as perfectly acceptable. This ideology is best exemplified in an infamous internal World Bank memo authored by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist and vice president of the World Bank, in which he argued that the World Bank should encourage the migration of polluting industries to poor nations because such a practice would be economically efficient.

In 1989, the world’s nations came together via the United Nations and created the Basel Convention to regulate the international trade in toxic wastes. A few years later, they reconvened to pass an amendment— called the Basel Ban—that bans the flow of hazardous waste from rich to poor nations.

A Theoretical Perspective

German social theorist Ulrich Beck offers a productive way to think about toxic wastes in the late modern era. He argues that we live in a risk society—a stage in human evolution marked by a fundamental transformation in the relationship between society and the environment where we witness an exponential increase in the production and use of hazardous chemical substances. These practices elevate the level of social and physical risk to scales never before imagined. Ecological risks are deeply embedded in society and are extremely harmful, yet frequently are difficult to measure.

Beck argues that the politics of the distribution of environmental degradation favor more powerful communities over others. Thus advanced capitalism creates wealth for some and imposes risks on others, at least in the short term. In the long run, the problem of widespread global ecological harm, however, ends up returning to impact its creators in a boomerang effect. That is, the risks of modernity eventually haunt those who originally produced them. This generalization of risks unlimited in time or space is experienced by all persons, all groups, across the divides of social class and ethnicity. One example is the spread of health problems that result from exposure to pesticide residues. The risk society thesis puts forward the position that modernity is a fundamentally anti-ecological endeavor.

If toxic waste is an ordinary by-product of industrialization, then this raises serious questions about the way we define and achieve progress within human societies. Toxic waste is therefore part of a much broader problem rooted in the proliferation of toxic jobs, toxic industries, and toxic communities that constitute the risk society.


  1. Beck, Ulrich. 1999. World Risk Society. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
  2. Clapp, Jennifer. 2001. Toxic Exports: The Transfer of Hazardous Wastes from Rich to Poor Countries. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  3. Melosi, Martin, 2001. Effluent America: Cities, Industry, Energy and the Environment. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  4. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2001. Environmental Outlook. Brussels, Belgium: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  5. Raffensperger, Carolyn and Joel Tickner. 1999. Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington, DC: Island.

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