Will Europe's New Chemicals Policy Bring Precaution to the World?
[Rachel's Introduction: How will Europe's new chemicals policy, known as REACH, affect chemicals policy in the U.S.? Could REACH bring precaution to the world?]
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By Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist
In 2006, after years of debate and negotiations, the European Parliament passed the new REACH law, or Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals. Standing in stark contrast to US policies on chemicals, REACH puts the burden of proof on industry to prove the safety of chemicals they are using in products sold in the European Union (EU) -- and calls for the phase- out of the most problematic chemicals, even in the absence of total scientific certainty.

Experts say REACH will change the way corporations manufacture products for the EU market. But how will Europe's actions be felt here, in the US? Could REACH bring precaution to the world?

Europe's Path to Precaution

The European Union has been taking the chemical load inflicted on its citizens seriously for years. For example, a 2005 amendment to the EU Cosmetics Directive requires that body care products be subject to scientific review, and subsequent rules ban "CMRs," or known carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins, from cosmetics. The EU has also banned certain phthalates in children's toys, and it has restricted the use of hazardous chemicals in electronics manufactured in the EU.

While the EU has taken an industry-by-industry approach in the past, the unprecedented new REACH law taking effect this year will mandate health and environmental safety reviews of chemicals used across industries.

Under REACH, all chemicals manufactured or imported into the EU will have to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki. Companies must submit a technical dossier of their products' chemical make-up, and must submit chemical safety reports -- which assess the potential toxicity as well as lifecycle exposure scenarios -- for chemicals produced in quantities of ten tons or more. ECHA will then determine if further testing should take place or if the chemicals are safe for use.

"The most significant thing about REACH is that it plugs the loophole left open by TSCA," says Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power (Chelsea Green, 2007). TSCA is the 1976 US Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave the EPA power to regulate the chemicals in US consumer products (with the exception of cosmetics). More than 60,000 chemicals were "grandfathered" into use when TSCA was passed and simply presumed safe, with no toxicity reviews at all.

"REACH requires a toxicity assessment of all those chemicals that are already on the market that have never been tested," says Schapiro.

Around 1,500 substances of "very high concern" -- used in consumer products today -- are expected to fall under REACH's "authorisation system," which maps out a plan to progressively replace these most dangerous chemicals, which include CMRs; substances with persistent, bio- accumulative, and toxic properties; and other substances, such as endocrine disrupters, found to have serious effects on human health and the environment.

Companies will be required to get authorization for the continued use of such chemicals in cases where alternatives do not exist or human exposure is extremely limited.

Many believe that REACH will motivate companies to find greener alternatives to toxic chemicals.

"Already, greater regulation in the European Union in regard to cosmetics and electronics has shown that many of these products can be made without dangerous toxins," says Schapiro, "And companies are continuing to make a profit -- in fact, Proctor and Gamble's profits increased the year after they removed phthalates from their cosmetics."

REACH isn't perfect, says Schapiro -- lawmakers came to several compromises with industry to get the law passed, including lowering the amount of safety data required for chemicals produced in less than ten tons each year, and allowing companies to continue to use some chemicals connected with health problems, even when alternatives exist, if the producer can claim to "adequately control" them.

"REACH was the result of an enormous environmental struggle over years, with lobbying on every side of the issue," says Schapiro, "and it was weakened from its earliest incarnation. But in the end, they still came out with a measure that is enormously more comprehensive than the approach in the US."

What REACH Means for the US

While Americans continue to suffer an outdated regulatory system, we may become what Schapiro calls "accidental beneficiaries" of tighter control in Europe, as companies remove the most dangerous chemicals from their products to comply with EU regulations.

"In business, it often makes sense to produce products to meet the highest standards required," notes Schapiro. "Those used to be the standards of the US, but the European Union, which now offers a larger market than the US, is now setting the rules."

But Schapiro and others point out that US consumers shouldn't assume that EU regulations wi11 keep them safe from toxic products. Because our environmental laws are more lax than REACH, companies could also choose to reformulate products for the EU and still sell the more toxic versions here in the US.

"It wi11 depend on what's cheaper to manufacture," says Dr. Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist and author of A Small Dose of Toxicology (Informa Healthcare, 2004). "If it's cheaper to reformulate for the EU and keep making the more toxic version of a product here in the US, we could become a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals."

While REACH doesn't necessarily protect Americans from exposure to toxins in consumer goods, it will provide them with the first-ever look at the potential health effects of some of those toxins through the ECHA database. When ECHA makes a decision about a certain chemical -- for example, restricting or banning the use of a substance shown to be linked to cancer -- the decision will be published on ECHA's Web site.

"Americans are going to see the level of protection they lack," predicts Schapiro. "What are Americans going to think when they start looking at that list of chemicals that are either banned or restricted from use in the EU and are perfectly legal here in the US? I think that will really be a wake-up call. People will realize that they are being exposed routinely to chemicals that their country does nothing about."

Ultimately, Schapiro hopes that the example set by the EU will demonstrate that we don't have to live each day surrounded by chemicals.

"When you learn about the toxic chemicals around you, it can be really easy to just flip out," he says, "But the decisions made to include these dangerous chemicals do not have to happen -- we can make different decisions. And what we see in REACH, and other directives in Europe in the past few years, is that it is being done; it's entirely possible."

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