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Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Corner: Why ‘better living through chemistry’ is not always true

“Better living through chemistry” was a marketing slogan used by the DuPont company in the 1930s. Chemical companies continue to make good use of advertising to convince Americans that we need their products. However, these companies neglect to warn us that there are tradeoffs for these so-called conveniences.

For years DuPont was aware of the health effects of a perfluoroalkyl substance [PFAS] or C8. It was used to make hundreds of products including stain resistant carpets and Teflon pans. The 2019 film “Dark Waters” tells the story of how Parkersburg, W.Va., residents were exposed to C8 through their drinking water. This “forever” compound is so prevalent that, according to a national study, it is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans.

Every day we are exposed to thousands of chemicals in our personal care products, foods, cleaning products, clothing, furniture, electronics, and food packaging. Do not assume these chemicals have been tested for safety and health effects. Most chemicals have had little to no testing done before they can be used in commerce. In 2014, when 10,000 gallons of a mixture of methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) was spilled into the Elk River, the drinking water source of 300,000 people, the safety data sheet listed “no data available” 152 times.

The Toxic Substance Control Act, passed in 1976, was a weak attempt by the USA to regulate chemical compounds. It failed to protect consumers as it allowed 62,000 chemicals manufactured pre-1976 to remain in the marketplace without toxic assessment. Even when testing is performed, synergistic effects are not considered and impacts on the endocrine system are rarely investigated.

The USA is one of a few countries that has failed to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Compounds (POPs). This international treaty, ratified by 184 nations in 2019, “aims to eliminate or restrict” persistent organic compounds such as the pesticides DDT, Dieldrin, and Aldrin. Like the C8 used by DuPont, many of these organic compounds will remain in our environment and our bodies for years.

Between 1970 and 1995, the volume of synthetic organic chemicals produced in the USA increased from 50 million tons to 150 million tons. One of the largest concentrations of petrochemical manufacturing plants can be found in the Mississippi corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The region has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” and has one of the highest rates of cancer in the USA. Some of the toxic compounds emitted from these facilities are carcinogens like chloroprene and benzene, others are endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A, and some, categorized as obesogens, contribute to obesity.

For years, this 85-mile stretch of polluted landscape has also been the location of several plastics-making cracker plants. Formosa Plastics has plans to build a $9.4 billion dollar plastics plant that would triple the level of carcinogens in the region. Citing extreme weather conditions in the gulf, the petrochemical industry has recently targeted the Ohio River Valley as a new location for a petrochemical buildout.

If this happens, the residents of the valley will be exposed to toxins just as hazardous as those being emitted in the communities of Cancer Alley. Additionally, more polluting single-use plastic packaging will be added to the already catastrophic plastic crisis.

Do the residents of the Ohio Valley really want to become the next “Cancer Alley?” How many young families will want to stay or relocate in a region known for health risks? Once again frontline communities will be accepting the risks while the petrochemical companies reap the benefits. “Better living through chemistry” is just a myth perpetrated by a loosely regulated industry that cares only about profits and little about citizens’ lives and the health of the planet.

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Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.

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