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.

Photo of a non-stick pan from iStockPhotoAs 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

6 Responsesto “New European chemical safety regulations reach around the world”

  1. Mary Khan says:

    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.

  2. I'm all for safety however this approach may have serious negative consequences of making all future products incredibly expensive due to the necessary testing as is the case with drugs. This "precautionary principle " will make it virtually impossible for small companies and individuals to develop new products. Twenty years down the road we may look back on this as being a really, really bad move.

  3. R Marcum says:

    Wow, you'd really choose cheap toys or household goods over your own health? Why not just CONSUME LESS if prices increase?

  4. Sarah Breeze says:

    I love how Schapiro took an extremely practical approach in this book, saying basically that the U.S. had better jump on the precautionary bandwagon or it'll be left behind. We should all be thanking Europe for being concerned about their citizens' health, and pressuring our government to do the same.

    And for pete's sake, makeup is hardly a necessity, who cares if it's expensive or not.

  5. Anastasia says:

    I just hope that things don't go overboard. The precautionary principle makes a lot of sense - but proving a negative is impossible. One thing that definately needs to be done is better testing for things we know are dangerous (i.e. lead in toys).

  6. Gordon says:

    One of your comments needs a precautionary note. Your comment: "One of the chemicals expected to be on the list is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient in teflon that Elanor wrote about recently." We cannot judge the safety of a new substance solely based on the hazardous or toxic properties of one or more ingredients used in its manufacture. Case in point: If we take a metallic material known to be extremely reactive to water (in fact explosive, even in small quantities, and highly corrosive afterward) and combine it with a greenish-brown extremely toxic gas, one might expect to get something very dangerous and very poisonous. In fact, however, the new substance we get is an absolute necessity for life. I refer to Sodium (Na) and Chlorine (Cl) as the starting ingredients and the resulting substance being common table salt. It should also be noted, that in the U.S. employees have had access to information about the hazardous properties of materials they might come into contact with in the workplace since the 1980s. This is in the form of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). We were far ahead of Europe in worker protections from chemical exposures. But just because a substance is considered hazardous, does not mean that it cannot be used or be useful. Millions of exposures to gasoline occurs all over the world every day without incident because we understand and respect its hazardous properties. Also, Chlorine, mentioned above, is used as a very effective disinfectant in swimming pools and purifier for the water we drink. Again because we understand and respect its properties. A knife can cut our finger or it can slice our bread - in either case it is a just a tool in need of our respect when we use it. I hope you have found my comments food for thought. Chemist and Safety Officer  Â