Nicholas Kristof writes today about the fight to reduce lead exposure in children, which eventually led (sorry the pun) to the elimination of lead from paint and gasoline. This undoubtedly caused immense dislocation and costs for both producers and consumers.
Was it worth it? Kristof discusses “Sam,” a young boy in Milwaukee, who showed normal development until exposed to lead in paint:
“Sam’s family moved homes, but it was no use. At age 3, he was hospitalized for five days because of lead poisoning, and in kindergarten his teachers noticed that he had speech problems. He struggled through school, and doctors concluded that he had “permanent and irreversible” deficiencies in brain function.
“Sam’s story appears in “Lead Wars,” a book by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner published this year that chronicles the monstrous irresponsibility of companies in the lead industry over the course of the 20th century. Eventually, over industry protests, came regulation andthe removal of lead from gasoline. As a result, lead levels of American children have declined 90 percent in the last few decades, and scholars have estimated that, as a result, children’s I.Q.’s on average have risen at least two points and perhaps more than four.”
Are there other lead-like issues out there? Looming over America’s future, according to Kristof, are a host of newly-invented chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system:
“The World Health Organization and United Nations this year concluded: ‘Exposure to E.D.C.’s during fetal development and puberty plays a role in the increased incidences of reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, behavioral and learning problems, including A.D.H.D., infections, asthma, and perhaps obesity and diabetes in humans.’”
Banning or regulating these substances would be … paternalism. One can argue that consumers can educate themselves and make smart decisions to avoid the plastics and other items containing the new toxins. The market will then self-correct to produce safer products….
But that is a long process, and involves many court fights and lawsuits. The transactions costs for consumers to educate themselves are high—especially because the industry hires scientists to muddy the waters with bogus studies (just as happened with cigarettes and lead). Preferences are not exogenous to the system.
Consumers are not scientists, and should not be expected to be able to read and analyze scientific reports in order to keep their families safe. There are huge economies of scale and scope to having a centralized group collect and analyze data, and regulate safety levels in products. If this can be done by impartial third parties in the private sector that would be great. But the externality effects make this less likely to be successful.