Europe this month rolled out new restrictions on makers of chemicals
linked to cancer and other health problems, changes that are forcing
U.S. industries to find new ways to produce a wide range of everyday
The new laws in the European Union
require companies to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before it
enters commerce -- the opposite of policies in the United States, where
regulators must prove that a chemical is harmful before it can be
restricted or removed from the market. Manufacturers say that complying
with the European laws will add billions to their costs, possibly
driving up prices of some products.
The changes come at a time
when consumers are increasingly worried about the long-term
consequences of chemical exposure and are agitating for more aggressive
regulation. In the United States, these pressures have spurred efforts
in Congress and some state legislatures to pass laws that would
circumvent the laborious federal regulatory process.
opposed by the U.S. chemical industry and the Bush administration, the
E.U. laws will be phased in over the next decade. It is difficult to
know exactly how the changes will affect products sold in the United
States. But American manufacturers are already searching for safer
alternatives to chemicals used to make thousands of consumer goods,
from bike helmets to shower curtains.
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
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.
a strong sense in Europe and the world at large that America is letting
the market have a free ride," said Sheila Jasanoff, professor of
science and technology studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"The Europeans believe . . . that being a good global citizen in an era
of sustainability means you don't just charge ahead and destroy the
planet without concern for what you're doing."
Under the E.U.
laws, manufacturers must study and report the risks posed by specific
chemicals. Through the Internet, the data will be available for the
first time to consumers, regulators and potential litigants around the
world. Until now, much of that information either did not exist or was
closely held by companies.
"This is going to compel companies to
be more responsible for their products than they have ever been," said
Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International
Environmental Law. "They'll have to know more about the chemicals they
make, what their products are and where they go."
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 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.
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."
changes in Europe follow eight years of vigorous opposition from the
U.S. chemical industry and the Bush administration. Four U.S. agencies
-- the EPA, the Commerce Department, the State Department
and the Office of the Trade Representative -- argued that the system
would burden manufacturers and offer little public benefit.
In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
directed the staffs of American Embassies in Europe to oppose the
measure. He cited talking points developed in consultation with the
American Chemistry Council, a manufacturers trade group.
Walls, the chemistry council's managing director of government and
regulatory affairs, said that 90 percent of its members are affected by
the E.U. laws and that some cannot afford the cost of compliance.
"We're talking about over 850 pages of regulation," he said.
E.U. standards will force many manufacturers to reformulate their
products for sale there as well as in the United States. "We're not
looking at this as a European program -- we're buying and selling all
over the globe," said Linda Fisher, vice president and chief
sustainability officer for DuPont and a former EPA deputy administrator.
expects to spend "tens of millions" of dollars to register about 500
chemicals with the European Union, Fisher said. About 20 to 30 are
expected to make the list of "substances of very high concern."
One such chemical is likely to be perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used to make Teflon
and other substances used in food packaging, carpet, clothing and
electrical equipment. A suspected carcinogen, it accumulates in the
environment and in human tissue.
DuPont reached a $16.5 million
settlement with the EPA in 2005 on charges that it illegally withheld
information about health risks posed by PFOA and about water pollution
near a West Virginia plant. Dupont and other companies have agreed to
cease production by 2015.
Once a chemical is included on the E.U.
list, manufacturers are likely to feel pressure to abandon production,
observers say. "It will be a market signal that says, 'These are best
to avoid,' " said Joel Tickner, director of the Lowell Center for
Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts.
the word "concern" to a chemical is enough to trigger a market
reaction. Earlier this year, when government officials in Canada and
the United States said they worried about health effects possibly
caused by bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastics, major
retailers pulled from their shelves baby bottles containing the
"When we see lead in toys and BPA in baby bottles, all
of these things arouse a kind of parental anxiety that overrides any
counter-arguments based on science that industry might make," Jasanoff
In the absence of strong federal regulations in the United
States, a patchwork system is emerging. Individual states are banning
specific chemicals, and half a dozen lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced bills aimed at shutting down production of various chemicals.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg
(D-N.J.) introduced a measure last month that would overhaul U.S.
chemical regulation along the lines of the new European approach. It
would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
to use biomonitoring studies to identify industrial chemicals present
in umbilical cord blood and decide whether those chemicals should be
restricted or banned. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 industrial chemicals in the cord blood of newborns.
Said Denison: "We still have quite a ways to go in convincing the U.S. Congress
this is a problem that needs fixing." But new policies in Europe and in
Canada push the United States closer to change, he said. "They show
it's feasible, it's being done elsewhere, and we're behind."
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