Toxic Cleaning Products, Environmental Pollution, and Negative Externalities

So you might read those labels (many of us don’t) on toxic products like oven cleaners and dishwashing machine detergent, etc., where you find out that they can cause birth defects, you shouldn’t get them on your hands, you should always wear rubber gloves (many people don’t) when using them, they can damage your eyes or cause respiratory damage, etc.

The problem here is one of transaction costs and negative externalities: in terms of transaction costs, most people are too busy to read labels, or figure products can’t be that harmful, etc., alternative natural cleaning products haven’t reached critical mass yet, many people don’t shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc yet; in terms of negative externalities, potential harm comes not just to them but to neighbors, future generations, their children, etc, they don’t bear the full brunt of the potential negative effects and thus have less incentive to find safer, natural alternatives to toxic cleaning products.

So what to do? Tax the makers of toxic cleaning products to make up for the negative externalities and make them invest in production of less toxic cleaning products, and to make them more expensive relative to natural cleaning products to make the natural cleaning products more competitive price-wise, etc.

One step at a time… Bono, step up to the plate on this one!!! (just kidding…kind of?)

This problem may be an example of problems of collective action, where air quality is a public good, and we all mostly free ride on others’ efforts to ensure clean and safe air, and incentive-wise view ourselves as having little marginal utility to gain in comparison with the effort we might exert towards pushing for some sort of stricter environmental legislation and regulation regimes…

“The book argues that individuals in any group attempting collective action will have incentives to “free ride” on the efforts of others if the group is working to provide public goods. Individuals will not “free ride” in groups which provide benefits only to active participants.

Public goods are goods which are non-excludable (i.e. one person cannot reasonably prevent another from consuming the good) and non-rival (one person’s consumption of the good does not affect another’s, nor vice-versa). Hence, without selective incentives to motivate participation, collective action is unlikely to occur even when large groups of people with common interests exist.”

Also it seems to be a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation:

“The Tragedy of the Commons is a type of social trap, often economic, that involves a conflict over resources between individual interests and the common good. It is a structural relationship between free access to, and unrestricted demand for, a finite resource. Such situations have occurred in the context of fishing (eg, the overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, and the destruction of salmon runs on rivers on which dams have been installed for power production), and in terms of water supply (eg, limited water available in arid regions as in the area of the Aral Sea, the Los Angeles water system supply, especially at Mono Lake and Owens Lake). The term derives originally from a comparison noticed by William Forster Lloyd with medieval village land holding in his 1833 book on population.[1] It was then popularized and extended by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”[2] However, the theory itself is as old as Thucydides and Aristotle, the latter of whom said “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”[3]

Here’s an explanation of the concept of externalities:

“In economics, an externality is an impact (positive or negative) on anyone not party to a given economic transaction.

An externality occurs when a decision causes costs or benefits to third party stakeholders, often, although not necessarily, from the use of a public good. In other words, the participants in an economic transaction do not necessarily bear all of the costs or reap all of the benefits of the transaction. For example, manufacturing that causes air pollution imposes costs on others when making use of public air. In a competitive market, this means too much or too little of the good may be produced and consumed in terms of overall cost or benefit to society, depending on incentives at the margin and strategic behavior.”

Due to transaction costs and collective action problems, the burden should be more on industry to provide us with convenient locations like at supermarkets to recycle batteries, to make safer and natural products available to us, etc.

Also see

Doctor Links a Man’s Illness to a Microwave Popcorn Habit (chemicas in microwave pop corn cause lung disease)


Hyperactivity and Food Additives: Let’s Have Some Natural Food Finally!

(chemical food additives linked to ADD)


Stricter regulation of air fresheners urged

(more on the air freshner story)

Of course, we can and maybe should look at rising rates of autism, breast cancer, and all the crazy chemicals we use suspiciously, even though it’s obviously difficult to come up with hard data on any sort of correlations–there are so many variables involved.

(Does your house smell like you’re a human being ? Use plug-ins which release chemical scents and Febreeze! Do your clothes and house smell like you’re a human being? Do your legs sometimes get restless or ache? You need restless leg medication! Do you breathe and sometimes grow hairs on your body and need to eat? We have medications to solve your problems too!)

Which is a big issue: how far are we willing to gamble, not having hard proof and data due to the enormous number of variables involved in figuring out the effects of products and chemicals (think of all the potential cross-effects, etc) versus being prudent and I would say conservative (on the safe side). Like, a big gamble: should we try to prevent global warming even if we’re not sure it really exists, or wait until we have more hard evidence, by which time major damage may have been done?

Also see:

The Top 100 Effects of Global Warming (citing to reputable mainstream news sources)


Oust the Smell of Life–Home Air Fresheners as the Agent Orange in the Chemical Industries’ War on Family Households and Human Life 

Photo by NASA


3 Responses

  1. […] Toxic Cleaning Products, Environmental Pollution, and Negative Externalities […]

  2. emm. interesting )

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