The Ethics of Exporting Poison

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There is a new documentary exploring the ethics of American companies manufacturing and selling harmful materials, such as lead paint, on the African continent. According to Occupational Knowledge International, as published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, more than 40 percent of house paints in Cameroon contain lead. Some of the paints contain up to 50 percent of their weight as lead. Lead paint was banned in the U.S. over 30 years ago because of its harmful neuro-toxic properties, and now there appear to be links to violence.

Wikipedia

The country of Cameroon. Photo: Wikipedia

So why is it being manufactured and sold in a foreign country by a U.S. company? According to one scholar, profit.
David Rosner is co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University and says, “That is more or less the way we do things. We end up exporting our poisons and try to make every last bit of profit we can.”
Another example of this type of practice is asbestos. According to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. exported about $27 million worth of asbestos products. While it is true I can go to Home Depot and purchase a product with asbestos (mastic), or I can go to Autozone and find some brakepads with asbestos in them, we long ago abandoned using the product extensively in living and work environment.
We all know these products are harmful and don’t use them domestically, so why are we exporting asbestos and manufacturing lead paint for foreign consumption? Is that ethical?
These products are being used in schools and day care centers in addition to homes. As we saw here in the U.S., the negative effects probably won’t be fully realized until 30 or 40 years down the road or beyond.
So is it ethical? No, it is not, and this doesn’t require a philosophical debate. While I believe every country has the right to regulate its own consumer goods as it sees fit, why should U.S. companies profit from products they know can be incredibly harmful (possibly fatal) to people’s health? Should we place our bottom lines over safety and moral responsibility? That answer to that question is very clear to me.

What do you think? Should these companies stop manufacturing and exporting materials that are known to be harmful? Leave a comment below.

Stay ethical, my friends.

Chris White, P.E., LEED AP has been helping clients solve problems for 20 years. He is the most interesting engineer in the world. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisWhitePE.

Huffington Post–Lead Paint, Other Toxic Products Banned in U.S. Still Exported to Unsuspecting Customers Abroad

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