Many harzardous and polluting industries are "exporting" their manufacturing operations to Third World countries to avoid the high costs of meeting worker and environmental protection standards in the United States and other highly industralized nations.
This is the conclusion of a new study by Barry I. Castleman, a Washington-based chemical engineer, whose research has been financed by environmental groups, organized labor and Congress' Office of Technology Assessment.
Castleman said in an interview that he was not able to ascertain the amount or proportion of foreign production that can be attributed to what he calls a "flight from regulation." The report cites examples of increased foreign production of domestically regulated materials in such industries as asbestos products, arsenic, zinc, mercury, benzine dyes and pesticides. Castleman said they indicated a trend that "hasn't produced enourmous problems yet but will if it is ignored."
In the United States and many other industrialized countries, these industries have been required to install expensive new equipment to reduce pollutants and protect workers from toxic elements, some of which have been found to cause cancer.
Rather than pay the cost, the industries have moved to less-developed areas of the world where protective rules are minimal and "poverty and ignorance make communities . . . quite vulnerable to the exploitation implicit in hazard export," Castleman said.
"By the next decade," he said, "the export of hazards from the U.S. to Third World countries is likely to increase. Banning of unsafe consumer products, foods, drugs and pesticides here has often led to the subsequent export of these products. Similarly, U.S. pollution-control laws and occupational health standards may soon lead to wholesale exodus in major industries, as manufacturers move to avoid the large costs imposed here while continuing to sell their products in the United States."
Sometime this is done with the tacit encouragement of the U.S. government, he noted.
Some finished products are returned duty-free because the new host countries get preferential tariff treatment, giving them a competitive edge over products produced here under costly protective regulations, he said. He also cited the case of Abex Corp., which got $1 million in political risk insurance from the United States to build an asbestos plant in India, with no requirements for worker safeguards.
Castleman found that asbestos textile imports have "soared" since domestic regulations was imposed, noting that the Amatex firm closed a six-year-old yarn mill plant in Pennsylvania in 1974 "imported" about 2 million pounds of asbestos textiles from Mexican-border plants it owned, roughly one-fourth of U.S. imports of asbestos textiles for that year.
A reporter for the Arizona Daily Star visited Amatex' mill in Agua Prieta last year and found asbestos waste clinging to machinery in the plant, a fence outside it and a nearby dirt road where children walk to school, Castleman said. Changes have since been made, he added, but William Johnson, an industrial health expert who accompanied the reporter, has called them "cosmetic."
Castleman said Mexican law calls for protective equipment and the posting of hazard warnings, but imposes fines of no more than $90 for violations, as contrasted with maximum U.S. fines of $10,000.
Castleman said the United States could help control "hazard exports" by revoking tax credits for offending firms, banning imports of their products or raising tariffs by an amount equal to the costs being avoided in this country.