Thursday, October 23, 2003

REACH For Chemical Safety

Every year, more than 60,000 people in the United States die from preventable diseases caused by exposure to chemicals and other agents in the workplace…. Together, workplace illnesses and injuries are estimated to cost more than $145 billion annually in the United States, on par with the cost of all cancers combined or the total cost of heart disease and stroke.

This sounds like something that our compassionate government would want to do something about, doesn’t it?

Well, the European Union is about to address this problem through its REACH program, an shocking idea that tosses out the notion, promoted by the chemical industry, that chemicals should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, and is intended to address both workplace exposures and environmental pollution in the European Union.
Under REACH, chemical manufacturers and importers would be required to gather and report the quantity, uses and potential health effects of approximately 30,000 chemicals. About 1,400 of these chemicals are known or suspected to be carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, persist in the environment or to accumulate in body tissues. The initiative would subject these 1,400 chemicals to an authorization review similar to that used in the regulation of pharmaceuticals. Approval of any use that could result in human exposures would be predicated on a thorough assessment of safety considerations and alternative products.
I have written before about the "precautionary principle" and the fits it is causing among U.S. chemical manufacturers here and here, which also link to some excellent articles in the American Prospect.

REACH is based on a 2001 European Commission “White Paper on a Future Chemicals Strategy,” outlining the Commission’s intentions for a fundamentally new integrated chemicals policy. The specific objectives include:
  • Making industry responsible for generating knowledge on chemicals, evaluating risk, and maintaining safety—a duty of care;

  • Extending responsibility for testing and management along the entire manufacturing chain;

  • Substitution of substances of very high concern and innovation in safer chemicals; and

  • Minimization of animal testing.

EU officials are currently touring the United States, traveling to Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Boston where they will be meeting with U.S. government officials, environmentalists, academics, union staff and workers to explain the initiative. The tour is being sponsored by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's Center for Sustainable Production which you should check out for much more information.

The tour comes only days before the European Commission is expected to issue its proposal for debate by the European Parliament and Council over the next year. As might be expected, these developments are generating a considerable amount of concern among American chemical companies and other businesses. And they're not taking it lying down.

A report issued recently by the Environmental Health Fund revealed a major campaign on the part of the Bush Administration and the U.S. chemical industry to weaken the European program: “As these documents show, the US government essentially operated as a branch office of the US chemical industry.” And for the usual reasons: it would cost too much money, put jobs at risk and it would restrict trade by banning certain chemicals.

The American attitude was put most succinctly last year, as I’ve reported before, by the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel who

complained in a Wall Street Journal Europe op-ed that European regulators did not take enough business input into their decisions and that they were concentrating too much on environment and health at the expense of growth and trade.
Schnabel has also warned the Europeans that
The EU has a right and a duty to protect its citizens, but must do so in a way to avoid excessive or inappropriate regulations which increase the cost of producing goods and services and place jobs at risk.
Organizations like the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), representing over 300 large companies, have joined in. The NFTC calls REACH "a growing attempt to limit trade through the use of technical barriers:"
The EU is intent upon protecting the public from all potential risks associated with industrial and technological advancement. Suspect activities include not only those conducted by longstanding industries applying advanced technologies (e.g., chemicals, autos, aeronautics, electronic and electrical equipment, cosmetics and all related downstream industries), but also those engaged in by newer industries themselves defined by the cutting-edge technologies they employ (e.g., biotechnology, nanotechnology, biocides, etc.)...What is apparent is that the EU has once again created a ‘strawman’ of hazard for the purpose of protecting the public against an unidentifiable and unmeasurable harm to humans or the environment that has not yet materialized.
Well, I don’t know about a “strawman,” but addressing harm “that has not yet materialized” is what the “precautionary principle” is all about.

Some industry representatives have even called REACH a national security threat to the United States because foreign governments will have control over the chemicals U.S. companies can sell, without our input.

Of course what American companies may really be worried about is not what those crazy Europeans do over there, but that their ideas may spread over here. Chemical safety in this country is largely regulated by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Passed in 1976, TSCA does a fairly good job requiring chemical manufacturers to test and prove the safety of new chemicals.

The main problem with TSCA is that when it was passed, it “grandfathered” in chemicals in commerce prior to December 1979, which still make up 99% by volume of all chemicals used in the United States today. These chemicals are considered safe unless the Environmental Protection Agency can demonstrate that they present an “unreasonable risk” to human health and the environment on a chemical by chemical basis.

The ineffectiveness of TSCA was made clear in a 1994 Report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office that found that since TSCA was passed, EPA has only been able to restrict only five chemicals (PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium.)

According to the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that less than ten percent of the approximately 2,800 high production volume chemicals (those produced over one million pounds per year) have a basic set of publicly available toxicity information;more than forty percent lack any toxicity information at all. Even less is known about chemicals produced in smaller volumes or mixtures of chemicals. Yet, this lack of evidence of toxicity is often misinterpreted as evidence of safety.
Europe currently has a similar system where only new chemicals require testing and approval. The European REACH program, does not grandfather chemicals, but bases their regulatory requirements on the amount in use, as well as the hazard category they fall into. In addition to making the environment and the workplace safer, the Europeans hope that requiring the registration and testing of all chemicals will encourage companies to innovate and find safer substitutions.

The American companies’ fears of imitation be not be totally unfounded. According to the Lowell Center, San Francisco passed its own precautionary principle ordinance in June 2003 which integrates precautionary principles into the city’s purchasing policies by choosing only the safest alternatives for specific product categories such as cleaners and pesticides.

A group of scientists, public health advocates, labor unions and environmental advocates in Massachusetts have developed a bill, Act for a Healthy Massachusetts was introduced (which I’ve written about before.) that would require substitution of 10 priority chemicals where safer alternatives exist.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the American pressure, along with growing fears of the European chemical industry may be having some effect, with the British, French and German government becoming increasingly critical of REACH. Debate is raging across Europe.
'Given our understanding of the way chemicals interact with the environment,' noted the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in a recent report, 'you could say we are running a gigantic experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject.'

Vital economic interests are at stake, too. Chemicals are Europe's third-largest manufacturing industry and a large and profitable exporter. But although Reach has often been portrayed (not least by the DTI) as 'a threat' to a successful employment and export sector, the reality is that the current regime has done it no favours.

Because today's rules implicitly favour existing products, which don't have to be tested, over new ones, the European industry lags behind Japan and the US in innovation.

Meanwhile, its poor image has become a major handicap in the competition to woo talented graduates to take up a chemical career.
REACH still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It has to be considered by the European Parliament and Council, which will be debating it through next year's parliamentary elections as well as the addition of ten new countries into the EU next year.

Despite the obvious debate between European environmentalists and the chemical industry, it is amazing to this reporter, a scarred and battleshocked veteran of numerous American regulatory wars, how substantive and civilized the discussions in Europe are. While the final shape of REACH is still unclear, all parties seem to agree that the current system is broken and something needs to be done.

It's that consensus that may be the most worrysome development to American companies who are used to getting their way through lies and blackmail.