Historians sometimes say, “The law of unintended consequences is the only law of history”.
Before World War II supply chains for rubber and oil were mostly under the influence of western democracies. Preparing for war, the German government needed inexpensive substitutes for rubber and oil based products. A plentiful supply of tires, hoses, gaskets and lubricants was essential for the successful roll out of mechanized warfare. So the German government directed chemical giant IG Farben to develop synthetic rubbers and plastics. Out of that effort modern polyurethane chemistry was created. Development continued during the 1940s. Fuelled by plentiful and inexpensive oil after World War II, the first polyurethane foam mattresses were introduced in the 1950s. By the 1960s, flexible polyurethane foam had pushed natural mattress products like latex, wool, horse hair and cotton to the margins. Ever since, flexible polyurethane foam has completely dominated the mattress market.
Many decisions affecting human health and environmental health taken in that era seem crazy today.
Half a century ago, most people trusted big government and big industry to do the right thing on their behalf. Unfortunately, the prevailing wisdom inside those institutions viewed humane concepts like The Precautionary Principle and First, Do No Harm as interference with economic expansion and corporate profits. Many decisions affecting human and environmental health taken in that era seem crazy today. Like mixing DDT with oil and spraying it over vast areas of forest and suburban homes; marching soldiers directly into radioactive fallout to observe what would happen to them; testing LSD and Agent Orange on humans without informed consent; widespread use of asbestos in homes, schools and workplaces; prescribing Thalidomide to pregnant women and building new homes over the Love Canal (Hooker Chemical’s dump site), both schemes resulting in birth defects in children; selling PCBs years after the weight of evidence had confirmed PCBs cause cancer and lasting environmental contamination. Most adults smoked, even around children. Gasoline and paint contained lead. Tang, the astronaut’s drink, was preferred over real orange juice; and rather than make apple pie with apples, millions of mothers chose instead to make fake apple pie with Ritz crackers. In that time, “Better Living Through Chemistry” was not an ironic movie title, it was an upbeat advertising slogan promoting a chemical future. Few questioned if the soft, squishy foam inside their mattress could be harmful.
As in our time of rapid Climate Change, with the enormous weight of evidence showing big government and big corporations failing to maintain the basic climatic conditions essential for social stability and continuing human life, many people mistakenly placed their trust in paternalistic, authority figures.
Author’s Note: All facts and information referenced in the Why Now? series, including facts and information about chemicals and their impacts on human health and environment, have been drawn from previously published sources in the European Union, United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and India. Sources include national and state government documents, government funded agencies, national and international corporations, peer reviewed research from universities, the industrial safety industry, material data safety sheets, worker’s compensation board records, articles published in major newspapers, articles published by national and international news reporting services, published authors respected in their fields, and reports and studies published by reputable nonprofits and environmental organizations. Len Laycock