You might be surprised to discover, while I work in the tech industry, I’m not all that fond of unchecked technological progress. Certainly, some technologies have improved people’s lives. Technology allows me to surf the Internet from the comfort of my couch. It helps my minivan start when it is minus 20. It allows me to enjoy a can of creamy Guinness just like it is at the pub. But it is possible to have bad technological progress.
Such progress has given us the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). These chemicals are used as flame-retardants, which sounds noble enough, but they are suspected by Health Canada of being toxic, possibly carcinogenic. This is of interest to me because computers and other consumer electronics are covered in the stuff. Worse, it might be lingering in the environment around us.
I’m not an expert at biochemistry, but the potential harm in this is obvious to me. Such chemicals are not natural. If any resistance is required to survive prolonged exposure to such substances, humans have not had enough time to evolve it. Now maybe these chemicals are completely benign and we have nothing to worry about. . . or maybe they’re not. A whole bunch of people are going to feel stupid if these chemicals turn out to be cancerous or something. So the default action one might expect would be to not use them.
Such chemicals are also unnecessary. I know this because there are all kinds of non-flammable materials out there. Ever tried lighting up a hard plastic? It’s not so easy, you really have to work at it. Ceramics don’t really burn at all. Steel doesn’t burn so well, most metals don’t, even hardwood is a bit of a bugger to get going without some kindling. So what purpose would there be in coating consumer goods with them?
Well, you can use cheaper, poorer materials, that’s why. I’m guessing that various regulations require a certain amount of flame resistance on things. So applying chemical fire retardants lets you cheap out on the base materials used to make a consumer product. Why would a manufacturer do this? They would do this this to reduce their costs. In this way they make more money.
Not sure what Adam Smith would say about his kind of thing. The various economies of the markets are working as they should I suppose. But why is it that it always comes down to the damn dollar? It’s an academic question and I doubt there is an easy answer for it. I’m only mildly angry about this kind of thing now — but sometime down the road I’m gonna be really pissed off when I actually get cancer.