Consumer Demands and Polluting Activities


In a full discussion of environmental health, we cannot afford to ignore the driving forces behind pollution-related health risks, namely (1) consumer demand for the goods or services that a polluting industrial activity produces or allows, along with (2), polluting activities by individual persons that lead to directly to environmental pollution. Ultimately, it is we, through our own individual and collective demands and actions, who are the causes of the creation and release of toxins into the environment.  Harmful pollutants, for example, may be created by product manufacture (such as the carcinogenic toxins created in the production of the ubiquitous polyvinyl chloride—PVC—plastic pipe), by product use or operation (such as the fine particulate toxins produced by truck and bus diesel engines, or the emissions produced by a power plant that generates the electricity that we all use), and by product disposal (e.g. dumping paint thinner or transmission fluid into a municipal sewer system). 

The physical, psychic, and economic complexities of modern life and its products make it increasingly difficult to fully understand the consequences of our daily actions. And yet, if we ignore the connections between our own lives and deeds and the rest of the world, we are likely to act in ways that are wasteful, destructive, and dangerous. The science of environmental health not only helps us to understand how our environments influence our health, but also how our actions influence the world around us. In regard to the latter, environmental health can teach us the implications of how we spend our time, get around, build places, and make things. It can demonstrate the consequences of what we buy, breathe, eat, drink, wear, use, and throw away. An environmental health approach can lead us to examine our everyday lives anew, and point us towards ways of living that maximize good, both for ourselves and the for rest of the planet.

This section briefly examines the data that allows us not to answer questions such as “how polluted is Pittsburgh?” but questions such as “how polluting is Pittsburgh?” and “how much less polluting could Pittsburgh be and still maintain its quality of life?”

The generally preferred way to remove or reduce environmental health risks is through “upstream” controls, including engineering controls (e.g., finding a non-toxic alternative ingredient for a product) and regulatory controls (e.g., legal bans on dangerous products). This is because upstream controls work “automatically” and do not rely on individual behaviors (downstream controls). Individuals in our society, besides reducing environmental hazards by changing our own behaviors, can to some extent also reduce them by influencing both engineering controls (as consumers) and regulatory controls (as voters). Yet to do any of these we must have sufficient information on which to base our decisions, and we must also have feasible alternatives. It should not be necessary, for example, to buy one’s own windmill and “go off the grid” in order to use renewable energy, or to have a Ph.D. in order to eat the right thing for lunch. There is thus a need for simple, direct communication of information about the ways that our actions and purchases affect our health and environment. This information, of course, depends on adequate data.

We now describe examples of data tools related to consumer demand and polluting activities in two categories: (1) tools for person-based analysis (ecological footprints), and (2), tools for product-based analysis (household products database, life-cycle analysis, and product labeling).

Ecological Footprints

Understanding our impacts on the environment can help us, as individuals and communities, to explore the best ways to make progress toward sustainability by “reducing our ecological footprints”.  For example, if everyone lived as we do in the United States, it would take five earths to sustain the world’s population[36]. The impact that a person, community, or nation has on the earth’s environment can be estimated using Redefining Progress's Ecological Footprint Analysis.[37] This online tool measures the amount of ecologically productive land area needed annually to support the resource demands and absorb the wastes of a person living a certain lifestyle, or of a specific community. Pittsburgh’s Ecological Footprint, for example, is equal to the biologically productive area of the earth required to produce the food, energy, and material resources consumed, and to absorb the waste put out, by the city’s residents over the course of a year. 

This analysis requires two types of data: (1) data entered into the calculations for an individual or a community, and (2) data used in the analysis to calculate the footprint. Data for an individual are entered directly into an online form. Questions relate to country of residence, urban vs. rural residence, income, dietary habits, transportation, housing, energy use, recycling practices etc. For a community using the ecological footprint tool, local data needed include population, acreage and land use types, electricity use by source, natural gas use, gasoline and diesel fuel use, transportation and vehicles statistics (e.g.., number of vehicles, road miles), waste and recycling mix and tonnage, and type, age, and number of housing units. In the case of limited or missing local data, data from the county, state or nation can be scaled down to the local level to use as estimates. Food consumed, goods purchased, and services used by a community are estimated based on national averages using government data on production and trade of major resources and goods.

A complex but thoroughly researched system of accounting is used to generate a footprint estimate as a sum of ecologically productive land area equivalents (expressed in acres or hectares). This estimate is based on six mutually exclusive uses competing for the Earth's land and water bio-resources. The six uses are (1) growing crops (e.g., for food, animal feed, fiber, oil crops, and rubber), (2), grazing animals (for meat, hides, wool, and milk), (3), harvesting timber (for wood as in home construction, fiber and fuel wood), (4) fishing, (5) accommodating infrastructure (for housing, transportation, industrial production, and hydro-energy), and (6), buffering against global warming (forest land needed to absorb carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil). The analysis is based on data from United Nations agencies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as data from the scientific literature, e.g., as compiled by the World Resources Institute.

It is noteworthy that estimates of the production of toxic pollutants such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and radioactive wastes cannot be included in the Ecological Footprint. This is because the Ecological Footprint concerns itself only with resources that can potentially be regenerated at a rate such that they are not depleted, and wastes that break down at a rate such that they do not accumulate, while these toxic pollutants do not break down at any sustainable rate.

Household Products Database

The Household Products Database of the National Library of Medicine[38] contains 4,000 U.S. consumer products, their chemical ingredients, and their health effects as listed in manufacturers’ Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Products included are those which tend to have potentially toxic ingredients, such as auto products (brake fluid, lubricants, sealants, de-icers), home products (air fresheners, cleansers, toilet bowl cleaners), pet care products (flea and tick control, litter, stain/odor remover), arts and crafts products (adhesives, glazes, glues, primers, varnishes), home maintenance products (caulks, grouts, insulation, paint, putty, stain), personal care products (antiperspirants, hair sprays, makeup, shampoos, soaps), yard products (fertilizer, lawn care, swimming pool products), and pesticides (including fungicides and herbicides).

This database allows one to search for the acute and chronic health effects of chemical ingredients contained in specific brands. Limitations include the following: (1) only product and chemical health effects, and not environmental impacts, are listed, (2) only products with larger market shares and shelf presence in retail stores are included, (3) all product information is from labels and MSDS provided by manufacturers. These tend to report the minimum information legally required. There is no independent scientific or consumer-based information source of product toxicity concerns included in the database, (4), as stated in the disclaimer, “Manufacturers frequently change formulations and although The Database Providers strive to keep information current, a lag period may occur between the time when a manufacturer makes a change to a label or Material Safety Data Sheet, and the time a change appears in the database. As a result, The Database Providers cannot guarantee that the information in the database is 100% accurate, current or complete at a particular point in time.”

Life-Cycle Analysis

Where exactly do the products we use come from, how did they get to us, and what happens to them after we dispose of them? Life-cycle analyses address these questions, by developing models from available data to give a full accounting of the health and environmental impacts of consumer products. Life-cycle analyses include a consideration of externalities, an economic term referring to the costs of a given transaction not borne by the buyer or seller Externalities may affect people locally or in another part of the world as well as wildlife, ecosystems, and future generations.

Life-cycle analyses follow products from their origins in natural resources and raw materials through the many processes that they undergo for consumer use, noting associated production costs, energy inputs, pollution, and by-products.  They then further follow what happens to these products after consumers dispose of them, through transport and breakdown to their final fates. Life-cycle analyses of everyday things show us an often-surprising web of connections. They also allow fuller assessments of product benefits and values as well as costs and risks in terms of economics, of ecology, and of health.

As an example, a life-cycle analysis of oil by Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.[39] uses economic, health, and environmental data from a variety of governmental and scientific sources to describe the following costs and impacts:

·         Oil recovery

o        Exploration, drilling, and extraction costs (environmental impacts, human health impacts, spills, explosions, fires and blowouts, human rights and environmental legal implications, population displacements and consequent infectious disease)

o        Transport costs (along with oil spills and their environmental impacts)

o        Refining costs (environmental pollution, chronic occupational hazards, accident potential, costs of environmental protection measures)

·         Oil consumption and combustion

o        Acute and chronic health effects of gasoline and gasoline additives 

o        Environmental and human health impacts of air pollution

o        Terrestrial and aquatic impacts of acid rain

o        Greenhouse gas emissions

o        Health impacts of climate change

·         Other costs and impacts

o        Oil and macroeconomic development

o        Oil and security

o        Environmental justice

Product Labeling

Current legal requirements for labeling are restricted to certain consumer products (nutritional labels on foods, ingredient listings on personal care products, warning labels on hazardous household products, etc.). There are no legal requirements for environmental impact labeling, but some voluntary certification systems exist for organically grown produce, sustainably grown wood products, etc.  Connected information on life-cycle analyses of products is potentially available through a tool that links product bar codes to customizable online databases in real time. Such a system, currently being developed by Maya Design of Pittsburgh[40], could potentially provide data to consumers at the point of purchase that would better allow them to make choices based on a set of criteria (price, health issues, environmental impacts, ethical concerns) of their own choosing.


Case Study #1: Does Buying “Oak” Furniture in Pittsburgh Destroy Rainforests in Asia?

A personal account by Robbie Ali

I recently worked in Indonesia with The Nature Conservancy to develop a health program for people living near orangutan rainforest habitat in a remote area of Borneo. Unless something is done soon to stop illegal logging there, that entire habitat will be gone in a decade or so. Why would that matter? Rainforests are the habitat of half of all known species on earth[41],[42] and take thousands of years to regenerate after they are cut down. In fact, largely because people are destroying rainforests, our planet is losing more plant and animal species now than at any time since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.[43] Besides the psychological, spiritual and aesthetic value that rainforests hold for many people, their biodiversity is also important for human health and well-being around the world as a source of both known and yet-undiscovered foods, drugs and other products.[44] In addition, they prevent erosion and protect local watersheds, and by strong carbon they buffer against global warming from greenhouse gas emissions.[45]

I also recently bought a dining room table and chairs at a local furniture store. The table was labeled as China Oak, and the salesperson in the showroom told me that the chairs were also made of oak. When the chairs came to the loading dock I noticed “Made in Malaysia” labels on the boxes, and the man said, “all our stuff is made in Malaysia these days.” Oak trees from Malaysia? Because of my work, and from news stories such as “Orangutan habitat is being destroyed by export-driven logging,”[46] I know that rainforest trees cut down illegally in Indonesia are often smuggled across the border to Malaysia and re-labeled for export. I also know that China is a major hub for the re-sale of illegal Asian hardwoods.[47]  Had I, by buying my dining room furniture, unwittingly contributed to the destruction of the very rainforests I work to protect? How could I find out?

After some online detective work I discovered the “Center for Wood Anatomy Research”, a little-known office of the USDA Forest Service in Wisconsin.[48]  This Center, it turns out, is the national laboratory for identifying wood samples. The lab has the world’s largest collection of wood species, and the testing is a free government service for U.S. citizens. Two weeks after I sent off the samples to the Center, I had my answer: Neither the chairs nor the table were made of oak. They were both made of rubberwood (Hevea), a tree typically grown on plantations in areas where original rainforest has been cleared.

This brief story illustrates the following points:

·         We live in a time of global connections. The actions of unsuspecting ordinary people in Pittsburgh may affect rainforests in Indonesia, and unknown plants on the rainforest floor in Borneo may contain undiscovered cures for cancer patients in Pittsburgh.

·         Most consumers are not aware of the externalities of their purchasing actions, or even of the global issues, such as tropical rainforest destruction, to which their actions may relate. The high levels of education and effort needed to understand these externalities and issues mean that few consumers are likely to consider them as they buy things.

·         Even when a consumer is motivated to obtain information about the products they are purchasing, it is sometimes difficult or impossible to do so.

·         The lack of strong legal labeling standards for many products means that they may be sold with absent, misleading, or false labels.

·         The complexities of product markets, often involving several countries and multiple middlemen, may lead to a lack of responsibility and accountability when products have negative environmental, ethical, health, or social justice implications.

·         The absence of a tracking system for product ingredients or components means that it is impossible to understand or even trace the origins and life-cycles of many products.