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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hazardous chemicals are not only bad to people's Health

In the late 1990s, citizens of several European countries learned from newspaper reports that their infants were constantly being exposed to a host of toxic chemicals.
Babies were sleeping in pajamas treated with cancer-causing flame retardants; they were sucking on bottles laced with plastic additives believed to alter hormones; their diapers were glued together with nerve-damaging toxins normally used to kill algae on the hulls of ships.
When European health officials tried to look into the matter, they were confounded by how little they actually knew about these and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Regulators discovered that they had no way of assessing the dangers of long-term exposure to everyday products.
Some manufacturers of baby goods did not even know what was in their own products, since chemical producers were under no obligation to tell them. Such data, if it existed at all, was secreted away in the vaults of chemical companies and had never been submitted to any government authority.
Bio-monitoring tests in the United States have revealed the same dangerous chemicals making their way into the blood of Americans.
In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed screening for the presence of 148 toxic chemicals in the blood of a broad cross section of Americans; it found that the vast majority of subjects harbored almost all the toxins.
In the same year, the CDC’s National Survey on Family Growth concluded that rates of infertility were rising for women under the age of twenty-five, a spike many scientists attribute, at least in part, to routine exposure to toxic chemicals. The Environmental Working Group conducted tests on the umbilical cords of ten newborns in 2006 and discovered that cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, and gene-mutating chemicals had passed from the mothers to their fetuses through the placenta.
Europeans have recently decided to do something about all the untested chemicals that are ending up in their blood.
“The assumption among Americans is, ‘If it’s on the market, it’s okay,’” explained Robert Donkers, an E.U. official who was asked to review Europe’s regulatory laws after the baby-product scare.
“That fantasy is gone in Europe.” Donkers’s efforts were the first steps in what became, seven years later, a new E.U. chemical regulation called REACH—Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. REACH amounts to a revolution in how chemicals are managed, and in how production decisions around the world will be made from now on. Regulations set by the most powerful countries have quickly become, through trade, the international standard. And the European Union, with a market of 480 million people stretching across twenty-seven countries, is now significantly larger than the United States in both population and wealth; Europe’s gross national product surged past that of the United States in 2005, and the gap increased when two more countries joined the E.U. earlier this year.
The E.U. is now the most significant trading partner for every continent except Australia. The ripple effects from this shift in economic power have been one of the great untold stories of the new century.

Indeed, Europe is now compelling other nations’ manufacturers to conform to regulations that are far more protective of people’s health than those in the United States.
Europe has emerged not only as the world’s leading economic power but also as one of its moral leaders. Those roles were once filled by the United States.
The EPA is actually allowed to place restrictions on the chemicals grandfathered onto the market if the substances present an “unreasonable risk to human health.”
Chemical companies have spent lavishly to preserve these lax standards. Since 1996, the industry has contributed $47 million to federal election campaigns, and it pays about $30 million each year to lobbyists in Washington. Lynn Goldman, who served as assistant administrator for toxic substances at the EPA from 1993 to 1998, told me that she and her colleagues knew TSCA was largely ineffectual.
“There were thousands of chemicals out there, and we didn’t know what they were. We weren’t able to get the data, weren’t able to assess the risks, nothing.” Goldman recalls a party held in Washington to commemorate TSCA’s twentieth anniversary. “Someone from the chemical industry got up to salute TSCA and said, ‘This is the perfect statute. I wish every law could be like TSCA.’”
The primary target of Europe’s new chemical regulation is the more than 60,000 compounds TSCA allowed to stay on the market without testing. Under REACH, these chemicals will have to be registered, evaluated for toxicity, and authorized before being permitted to remain in use.
Fifteen hundred chemicals are expected to be placed on a 2008 list of “substances of very high concern.” These toxins, which are known to cause cancer, alter genes, and affect fertility, will be the first to be removed from the market unless producers are able to prove that they can be “adequately controlled.”
By the end of 2008, the first sets of risk data are to be submitted to the E.U. Manufacturers will then have ten more years to complete what amounts to a scientific cataloguing of the chemical makeup of the global economy.
Whereas U.S. regulators are forced to find scientifically improbable definitive evidence of toxic exposure before acting, REACH acts on the basis of precaution. European authorities consider the inherent toxicity of a substance and, based on an accumulation of evidence, determine whether its potential to cause harm is great enough to remove it from circulation.
Unlike TSCA, REACH places the burden of proof on manufacturers, who must demonstrate that their chemicals can be used safely. The law also proposes to drastically limit the amount of health-related data that companies can claim as proprietary.
U.S. companies could be put at a serious competitive disadvantage if they do not acknowledge the changes taking place across the Atlantic.
Americans are already losing ground to Europeans in the chemical business, having slipped in the past decade from a trade surplus with European manufacturers to a more than $28 billion deficit.
That deficit promises to increase as environmentally aware consumers are given the opportunity to choose between European goods with chemicals that have undergone toxicity screening and American goods with unscreened chemicals.
Because American companies interested in exporting to the E.U. will also have to supply toxicity data to the European authorities, REACH does present opportunities for U.S. consumers. Not only will these chemicals be subject to their first-ever health- and environmental-impact review but the findings will then be available on the European Chemical Agency’s website. At that point, U.S. consumers may no longer choose to use untested American goods.

Liberally taken from Harper's Magazine
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