Changes to European Chemical Standards Affect US Companies
As reported by Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, new regulations in Europe about the use of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are affecting US manufacturers, if those manufacturers want to maintain exports to European countries. It is no surprise that the Bush administration and US chemical manufacturers oppose these new laws, which require companies to determine the safety of chemicals and materials before they can be used. This approach is contrary to US practice, where the harmful nature of a chemical must be demonstrated before the substance is regulated or banned.
The laws also call for the European Union to create a list of “substances of very high concern” — those suspected of causing cancer or other health problems. Any manufacturer wishing to produce or sell a chemical on that list must receive authorization.
In the United States, laws in place for three decades have made banning or restricting chemicals extremely difficult. The nation’s chemical policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals then in commercial use. Chemicals developed after the law’s passage did not have to be tested for safety. Instead, companies were asked to report toxicity information to the government, which would decide if additional tests were needed.
In more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required additional studies for about 200 chemicals, a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals that are part of the U.S. market. The government has had little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of those chemicals.
The changes in Europe are welcomed (by me) and many consumer and environmental groups:
The European Union’s tough stance on chemical regulation is the latest area in which the Europeans are reshaping business practices with demands that American companies either comply or lose access to a market of 27 countries and nearly 500 million people.
From its crackdown on antitrust practices in the computer industry to its rigorous protection of consumer privacy, the European Union has adopted a regulatory philosophy that emphasizes the consumer. Its approach to managing chemical risks, which started with a trickle of individual bans and has swelled into a wave, is part of a European focus on caution when it comes to health and the environment.
What a novel idea: that regulatory agencies should protect the consumer and not giant corporations. Not all corporations in the US are protesting: Apple computer has already responded with its MacBook Air, which exceeds projected European standards for the use of toxic materials, quite a feat for a computer, especially in the early stages of these regulatory changes. However,
The EPA has banned only five chemicals since 1976. The hurdles are so high for the agency that it has been unable to ban asbestos, which is widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and is barred in more than 30 countries. Instead, the EPA relies on industry to voluntarily cease production of suspect chemicals.
“If you ask people whether they think the drain cleaner they use in their homes has been tested for safety, they think, ‘Of course, the government would have never allowed a product on the market without knowing it’s safe,’ ” said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When you tell them that’s not the case, they can’t believe it.”
This is an excellent article about welcome changes. With the globalization of commerce, US companies will likely be forced to adopt new standards even if US lawmakers and regulatory agencies continue to lag far behind Europe. New legislation along the lines of the European laws has been introduced by the Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, but it may take a long time for Congress to respond. U.S. Companies will not have the luxury of waiting much longer.
Please understand that I am not in any way “anti-chemical” or anti-industry or anti-US: I don’t expect or hope for “organic computers,” using the common consumer definition of “organic,” nor do I expect to find “all-natural cell phones.” I have worked in the U.S. chemical industry (in the past) and believe that modern society has benefited tremendously from many contributions of the the chemical industry. However, I also believe that transparency is vital for a functioning democracy, and that, once potential problems are discovered with products or ingredients, it is important to assess the risk. I don’t expect us to maintain a lifestyle similar to what has evolved in developed countries without some risk- there just isn’t a free lunch in any area of human endeavor. However, the ignorance of toxic or other deleterious properties of chemicals that may have helped cause their enthusiastic adoption by industry and consumers has long been replaced with hard data on health problems, at least in some cases and for some chemicals. Other chemicals are quite safe, and many other cases remain under-examined. Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that there is more than one kind of risk to assess: acute risk due to contact or exposure to a substance, and chronic risk when that substance is introduced into the environment and the food chain. Persistent bio-accumulators, or molecules that are not metabolized, but instead accumulate in increasing amounts as one moves up the food chain, can have serious health consequences. These consequences are caused by estrogen-like behavior in some cases. Similar issues exist with inorganic elements like lead and arsenic from consumer electronic goods that are introduced into landfill, and that leach out into groundwater. Consumers and environmentalists, both groups I belong to, should be aware that these harmful inorganic elements are completely natural, as are uranium and other substances we don’t want to ingest.
While it is important for industry to find safe replacements for many current materials or chemicals in use, it is also important for consumers to recycle electronics (TV’s cell phones, computers, etc.) properly, so that the component materials can be recovered and re-used and kept out of ground water. This recycling should be free to the consumer, subsidized by manufacturers and retail chains, as Best Buy has recently started doing in the US. Of course, the cost will be passed on to the consumer, but that is one of the choices we have to face: do we want to continue poisoning our children or will we
- use cell phones, etc. for longer periods of time rather than treating them as disposable items
- refuse to pay a little more for greener, safer technology?
Let’s make choices that protect consumers and the environment while allowing industry to fluorish.
Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin
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