Driving EU policy is a "better safe than sorry" philosophy called the precautionary principle. Following that guideline, which is codified into EU law, European regulators have taken action against chemicals even when their dangers remain largely uncertain.American industry isn't too pleased with what the Europeans are doing, but they aren't exactly in a position to ignore them:
Across the Atlantic, by contrast, U.S. regulators are reluctant to move against a product already in use unless a clear danger can be shown. A chemical, they say, is innocent until proven guilty.
Critics say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's search for scientific clarity takes so long that the public often goes unprotected. Paralysis by analysis, the critics call it.
U.S. risk assessments can last years, sometimes longer than a decade, and in some cases, the EPA still reaches no conclusions and relies upon industries to act voluntarily. For instance, despite research that showed by 2002 that polybrominated flame retardants were doubling in concentration in Americans' breast milk every few years, the EPA has still not completed its risk review. Meanwhile, the U.S. manufacturer of two of the flame retardants agreed voluntarily to stop making them last year after they were banned in Europe and in California.
Many companies, even those based in America, follow the European rules because the EU, with 25 countries and 460 million people, surpasses even the United States as a market. Rather than lose access to it, many companies redesign their products to meet European standards. For example, Revlon, L'Oreal and Estee Lauder have said that all their products meet European directives that control the ingredients of cosmetics. And U.S. computer companies say they are trying to remove lead and other substances banned in the EU from everything they sell.And it's only going to get worse (or better). Looming on the horizon is Europe’s proposed REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) program:
Under REACH, which was approved by the EU's executive arm and is scheduled to go before the European Parliament this fall, companies would have to register basic scientific data for about 30,000 compounds. More extensive testing would be required of 1,500 compounds that are known to cause cancer or birth defects, to build up in bodies or to persist in the environment, as well as several thousand others used in large volumes. Those chemicals would be subject to bans unless there is proof that they can be used safely or that the benefits outweigh the risks. The testing would cost industries $3.7 billion to $6.8 billion, the EU says.American industry is not amused, accusing the Europeans of irrational paranoia, in addition to ulterior motives:
"There is a protectionist element to this, but it goes beyond Europe trying to protect its own industries or even the health of its public," said Mike Walls, managing director at the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, the nation's largest exporter. "It's a drive to force everyone to conform to their standards — standards that the rest of the world hasn't weighed in on."I’ve always said that whether its European regulations or good old fashioned (and increasingly rare) American regulations, industry will always claim that the sky will fall, but once forced to deal with new restrictions, capitalisms always manages to adjust, innovate and continue making profits – in this case hopefully in a healthier way.
John Graham, an economist and senior official of Bush's Office of Management and Budget, which reviews new regulations, has called the notion of a universal precautionary principle "a mythical concept, kind of like a unicorn."
"Reasonable people can disagree about what is precautionary and what is dangerous," he said at a 2002 conference.
- Bush Administration Reaches Out to Strangle European Chemical Initiative, June 29, 2004
- Polar Bears, Unicorns and Babies: REACH and the Precautionary Principle, May 5, 2004
- US Continues Attempt To Block Europe's REACH, May 4, 2004
- US Government Lobbies Against Euro Chemical Safeguards at Request of Chem Industry, April 1, 2004
- "Reaching" for the U.S. Chemical Industry, December 7, 2003
- REACH: European Proposal to Regulate Chemicals, October 23, 2003