By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
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 products.
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.
Adamantly 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 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.
"There's 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.
"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."
The 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.
Mike 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.
The 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.
DuPont 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.
Linking 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 chemical.
"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 said.
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."