Gary of Trinity expresses frustration at a series of articles I have written about perfluorinated chemicals. Some background can be found here. The nutshell is that for more than a decade Decatur Utilities has been using sludge from its wastewater treatment plant as fertilizer on area farms. Much of that sludge comes from area industries, and some from industries that use or produce perfluorinated chemicals. The PFCs ended up in two places: the Tennessee River and the farmland. EPA had not banned the chemicals, in large part because they seemed to be limited to a DuPont factory in West Virginia. No regulation was necessary because EPA used litigation and a court order to limit DuPont’s discharge of the chemicals.
All that changed in November when EPA discovered that DU’s land-application of the PFC-contaminated sludge was creating huge concentrations in soil used for crops and livestock. PFCs do not degrade in the environment, so every land application increased the concentrations. Now EPA has issued a health advisory for PFCs in drinking water, and is considering more stringent limitations that might restrict the discharge of PFCs.
DU stopped land applying its sludge, and it is trying to come up with ways to keep industries from discharging the synthetic chemicals into its treatment plant. These efforts are costing DU lots of money, which DU customers will end up having to pay. If EPA imposes regulations on PFCs, consumers will get hit. PFCs are used to make Teflon and other nonstick products.
“You will receive a huge fine and instructions to start a remedial plan,” complains Gary, “which will cost the Decatur citizens millions of dollars (a million here, a million there…who minds? it is only numbers).”
PFCs are harmful to humans and the environment. That means they exact a cost. The cost (I’ll gloss over some scientific debates for the purposes of this discussion) is in increased cancer rates, increased rates of birth defects and infertility, and dying largemouth bass. When I buy a Teflon pan, I am paying some costs — the cost of manufacturing, of materials, of a profit margin — but because the PFCs are unregulated, I am paying nothing for the toll its production had on humans and the environment. Those costs are external to my transaction.
The fact that I am not paying those costs, however, does not mean nobody is. Cancer victims are paying, defective babies are paying, fishermen on Wheeler Lake are paying.
One solution is to ban PFCs. I tend to think a better solution is to regulate PFCs. Regulations, if enacted prudently, shift some of the environmental costs of Teflon production to the consumer. When I buy a Teflon pan with regulated PFCs, I am paying a portion of the cost involved in limiting the environmental harm from its production. What was an external cost borne by those who received no benefit from my Teflon pan becomes a part of the transaction cost.
Regulations are annoying and, to the consumer, expensive. Carefully crafted regulations do not create new costs, however. They merely acknowledge an existing cost and make sure the right person is paying it.
Eric Fleischauer, firstname.lastname@example.org