Almost every product we buy, use at home or give to children contains dozens or even hundreds of chemical substances.
In 2012, the US chemical industry alone produced $769.4 billion worth of chemicals.
The electronics that illuminate our smartphones and make today’s cars safe contain metals, plastics, ceramics, and many other materials.
Even plastic packaging is a complex mixture of molecules, each of which plays its own role: they provide the strength, color, texture, elasticity, and durability that we believe are related to performance.
Few people would say that it is worthwhile to risk exposure to harmful chemicals in order to check football scores or to appease a picky toddler.
Consumers in North America and Europe are beginning to expect regulations to protect us from harmful chemicals.
Unfortunately, dangerous chemicals are still around us-whenever a child picks up a plastic toy, she may be exposed to countless hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, skin allergies, asthma or carcinogens.
Regulators are beginning to take measures to protect end users from these risks.
Consumer awareness and community activism put pressure on manufacturers, and early legislation is testing the involvement of the US government.
But when considering the dangers of harmful chemicals in our products, manufacturers often underestimate the risks, only assess the best case, and only consider consumers.
How these products are made by real workers in an unregulated environment is in stark contrast.
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As a chemist pursuing green chemistry-developing chemical processes and products that are inherently safer for humans and the environment-I have witnessed this problem with my own eyes.
We imagine the production line using top-notch safety equipment, full control of hazards and well-trained workers, but this is rarely a reality in our global economy.
We need to design a product that is inherently safer, not only safer for consumers, but also safer for workers in an under-regulated or unregulated environment.
Workers in the paint zone of the Indian factory do not have ventilation or masks.
ILO report in the Asia-Pacific region
Acute and chronic hazards
During my last visit to India, we generally lacked awareness of the risks faced by workers along the production pipeline, which shocked me deeply.
I am a member of a team that develops green building materials for low-income families.
Obviously, when chemicals become part of the production process in under-regulated workplaces, we cannot assume that the recommended protective measures will be universally adopted.
In the factory where I work in Ahmedabad, safety goggles, gloves and even shoes are beyond the capabilities of workers, and they are rarely mandated or provided by employers.
People work without the simplest protection, and sometimes use chemicals that we know have health risks.
None of the people I work with are obviously disturbed by the lack of protection, because their lungs and skin are mixed with chemical additives every day.
Even in a company that mainly uses recycled cardboard to produce “greener” building materials, our workers are exposed to harmful air dust and gases. The chemical composition of the processed materials is a mystery to everyone in the factory. .
According to my experience, safety means different things for ordinary Indian workers and North American chemists.
For them, even the serious danger of going to work outweighs the long-term danger they face after they arrive.
India is one of the countries with the highest traffic accident death rate in the world, with more than 200,000 deaths every year.
Every year, 48,000 Indians die in workplace accidents, and countless undocumented injuries destroy people’s lives and livelihoods.
Activists held a protest on the anniversary of the disaster at the Bhopal Union Carbide Pesticide Plant.
Bhopal Medical Appeal, CC BY-NC
In addition, there are few protective measures for Indian workers who cannot work.
Concerns about the work safety of the poor conceal the problem of work safety, especially in the face of invisible, long-term hazards.
This is not to say that workers do not value their health;
They just often don’t have better choices or the ability to demand improved conditions.