Silicone is ubiquitous in our everyday lives; it’s found in millions of products we come into contact with daily, from sunroofs and smartphones to personal care products and medical devices.
Yet efforts are underway, primarily in Europe, to impose draconian regulations on silicone products in the name of environmental protection. But advocates of restrictions and bans are relying on a flawed regulatory approach and ignoring new, more accurate scientific data. Environmental regulations must be based on cost/benefit analysis and sound risk assessment, not alarmism.
Advocates of bans embrace the “precautionary principle,” according to which chemicals that could cause harm — no matter how remote that possibility — should be outlawed. Opponents favor a more nuanced approach based on risk analysis, which considers both the potential hazards and the probability of actual harm.
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Careful evaluations have found that silicones present no risk to human health and do not appear in the environment at levels that constitute a threat to biological diversity or that require product bans. The Environmental Protection Agency has also indicated it wants to assess a silicone substance – known as D4 – while a new peer-reviewed scientific study on the material’s environmental impact concluded it presents a “negligible risk.”
But while the supposed evidence linking silicone to environmental damage is lacking, the socioeconomic effects of a ban would be very severe.
To illustrate the importance of silicone-based compounds to modern society, consider their role in just one sector of our economy: transportation. Silicone products are used extensively in automotive parts. They coat air bags (which saved at least 2,756 lives in 2016), preventing them from deteriorating over time and keeping them gas-tight under pressure. Silicone rubber is widely used in car tires, extending their lives and providing better traction, which ultimately saves lives.
In aircraft, where temperature and pressure can fluctuate dramatically, silicone’s high performance in extreme conditions is particularly valuable. Aviation manufacturers use silicone in adhesives and sealants in doors, windows, wings, fuel tanks, hydraulic switches, overhead bins, wing edges, landing gears, vent ducts, engine gaskets, electrical wires and black boxes.
Boat builders use silicone products to seal hulls and prevent the buildup of dirt and film — helping to improve the hydrodynamics of the vessels and increases fuel efficiency.
Ironically, far from harming the environment, silicones play an important role in reducing environmental damage. For example, the use of silicone-based paints on the hulls of ships generates fuel savings that exceed the carbon dioxide emissions needed to produce the paint by 182 times. Silicone parts also reduce the weight of passenger cars, resulting in greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions. These environmental benefits are often ignored by those who claim that silicone poses a threat to the environment.
The economic value of silicone in the transportation industry is substantial, helping to support thousands of jobs. All told, the transportation sector in North America and Brazil used nearly 37,000 metric tons of silicone in 2013, valued at $318 million, according to an independent analysis.
Restricting the use of silicone based on a flawed regulatory approach and relying on antiquated laboratory studies would force the transportation sector to turn to inferior chemical substitutes, driving up costs and decreasing performance. Consumers would face higher prices and lose the many safety benefits silicone provides. And the environment would be worse off, too.
Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.
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