New European chemical safety regulations reach around the world
The European Union is changing the rules for chemicals, requiring that industry demonstrate that a chemical is safe before using it in consumer products such as cosmetics, food packaging, water bottles, and durable goods. This approach, sometimes called "the precautionary principle," is in stark contrast to the approach in the United States, where a chemical is considered "innocent until proven carcinogenic."* (A detailed description of the history and implementation of the precautionary principle can be found in a newsletter from the Cornell University Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors in PDF format.)
Although the regulations apply to chemicals used within the E.U., the global economy means that they will have impact far beyond the E.U. borders. An article by Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post last week explains some of the implications and the response of the U.S. chemical industry.
As part of the regulation's implementation, the E.U. will create a list of "substances of very high concern" for chemicals that are suspected to cause cancer or other serious health problems. One of the chemicals expected to be on the list is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient in teflon that Elanor wrote about recently.
To further understand the situation, it is helpful to revisit the coverage of "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power," by Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the span of a few weeks, Schapiro had a long article at Harper's Magazine, was interviewed on Fresh Air, appeared on KQED's Forum, answered five questions in the San Francisco Chronicle, and was interviewed by Michael Pollan in Berkeley. Although I haven't read the book, I heard the radio programs and attended the Pollan event.
Some of Schapiro's findings and arguments that I found most interesting:
- The government is not testing consumer products for safety. The government does not test the vast majority of chemicals used in consumer products, nor does it require industry to test them. The lipstick, shampoo, baby toys and other consumer products that you put on your body or that your child puts in his or her mouth contain numerous chemicals that have not been screened for safety. One reason is that an intentional loophole in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1970 allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to be grandfathered onto the approved list. Schapiro stated that 90% of the chemicals in use today are on the grandfathered list.
- The world is looking to Europe for guidance. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are becoming irrelevant on the global stage. China is adopting E.U. rules on electronics.
- U.S. companies are changing their formulas to comply with E.U. regulations. If those products are then sold in the U.S., this would be good news for U.S. consumers. In some cases, the companies are discontinuing the "U.S." formulation.
- The U.S. is becoming a toxic dumping ground (compared to the E.U., at least — certainly not compared to the massive e-waste dumping in China and Africa). Chinese toy factories often have two assembly lines: one produces phthalate-free toys for the E.U., the other produces toys with pthalates for the United States (phthalates are a class of chemicals used to make plastics soft and pliable and have been linked to numerous health problems — enough to lead to a ban in the E.U.). Schapiro recounts cases of products that were rejected for import in the E.U. for overly high concentration of phthalates or some other chemical, and then shipped to the U.S., where there are no restrictions.
- Environmental safety regulations lead to innovation. European companies are becoming the leaders in 'green chemistry,' while American companies continue stubbornly to defend the same old chemistry, spending lots of money on lawyers and lobbyists instead of chemists and engineers.
In each of the links I provide above, Schapiro tells an important story about how little we know about the chemicals to which we are exposed every day and how global economic power is shifting to the European Union.
Also of note is the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic safety database, a huge collection of information about the mysterious ingredients in your personal care products and cosmetics.
* I first heard the "innocent until proven carcinogenic" phrase uttered by Michael Pollan during the interview with Mark Schapiro mentioned above.
Photo from iStockPhoto
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