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The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products

by Vanja PetrovicAlterNet
August 17th, 2007

AlterNet

American industry would have you believe that taking potentially hazardous and toxic chemicals out of everyday consumer products -- removing phthalates from children's toys and cancer-causing coal tar from hair dye -- would damage our economy and result in a loss of American jobs. In his latest book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Mark Schapiro busts this myth and reveals the grim fact that some companies, whether American or international, often have two production lines: one that manufactures hazard-free products for the European Union and another that produces toxin-filled versions of the same items for America and developing countries.

Schapiro examines how America, once a leader in environmental protection, came to allow potentially toxic and mutagenic chemicals, banned by the EU, into everyday products. He also looks at how the EU's economy -- almost identical to that of America -- continued to thrive even after these chemicals were banned, essentially "calling the bluff" of the American industry.

Schapiro, an investigative journalist for more than two decades, has built an award-winning track record with a focus on environmental and international affairs. His work has appeared in Harper's, the Nation, Mother Jones, and the Atlantic Monthly. He has also been a correspondent on NOW with Bill Moyers, Frontline/World, and Marketplace.

AlterNet spoke with Schapiro in Berkeley at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where he is currently the editorial director.

Vanja Petrovic: Why did you choose to write this book now?

Mark Schapiro: I've been following the evolution of the European Union for some time now, just because I spent a lot of time working in Europe. I've been both a reporter and an editor in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe after 1989. And I spent quite a bit of time reporting in and out of the European Union. So, I watched as this entity, called the European Union, evolved into a functioning, powerful political and economic body.

What I think most Americans have missed is that, in the interim, this very powerful political force has emerged within Europe. It has enforced laws from Brussels that are applied now in 27 different countries.

Traditionally, the United States has been the single most powerful economic force in the world -- that's what we've seen until now. Suddenly, the EU has a bigger economy than the United States of America. The EU exports more goods to the rest of the world than the United States of America. The EU has a higher GNP than the United States of America.

Now, I think, we are in a historic period. There's an enormous historic shift that's going on right now. And that shift, when historians look back on this time period, they're going to look at this enormous tectonic shift in international influence and international power. What they're going to see is a kind of dramatically dwindling American influence, and that's partly a result of the foreign policy of the current administration, and it's also partly a result of the sheer, cold economic numbers, in which the United States is no longer the only dominant economic force in the world. That shift has enormous implications, and I think it's one of the biggest untold stories of the 21st century. What I wanted to look at is what the environmental implications of that shift are.

Petrovic: What is the message behind this book?

Schapiro: The environmental battles in the United States have been kind of repeated over 20 years, and it's the same battle over and over with different ingredients. The environmental community says, "Take this chemical out of this because it's dangerous," and the industry says, "One, it's not dangerous, and two, it's not economical, and we'll fall out of business, and Americans are going to lose their jobs." And this goes back and forth over and over again -- it's like Kabuki theater.

So, for the first time what you have is an economic power that's the equivalent of the United States -- it's the equivalent in terms of affluence, in terms of education, in terms of overall sophistication and overall development -- which is saying, "No, we can actually take these particular toxic chemicals out of these products, out of our computers, out of our pajamas, out of our cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy."

So, essentially they're calling the bluff of the United States. They're calling the bluff of the U.S. industry by demonstrating that taking out substances deemed toxic can keep the economy going. The economic argument has been taken away.

Petrovic: You talk about how some companies are making one product for the United States, with potentially toxic chemicals, and another, without those chemicals, for Europe. Why is there such a resistance for making the same products for both?

Schapiro: You have two things happening: One, you have companies that have separate production lines for Europe and America. In other instances, when it comes to transnational companies, they are adopting one set of standards for their products, following tighter standards from the EU.

So, for the first time, these American companies, we're talking about electronic companies, some of the cosmetic companies -- not a whole bunch of them, but some of them -- are actually following the rules of the EU. They're jumping right over the heads of Washington. Part of the point of this book is to illustrate to Americans how our own government is digging itself into a place of irrelevance. In some instances business is getting ahead of the government, but in other instances, there are things that are banned in Europe that are ending up in America, and that includes things like phthalates in children's toys. And formaldehyde, which you can't sell in Europe at certain levels, is ending up in American furniture.

Twenty-five years ago, I co-authored a book called Circle of Poison, and that book talked about the double standard that was emerging between the United States and other countries. Here in the United States we were beginning to ban certain toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and other chemicals. Our book was essentially an expose about how we would ban the chemicals here, but we would send them oversees where they weren't banned. And, suddenly, 25 years later, I'm looking at this whole power dynamic and realizing, "My god, the United States is now in the position that the developing world once was in relation to the United States."

Petrovic: In the book, you say one of the reasons that companies are unwilling to stop producing products with potentially toxic chemicals is a fear of liability. Why aren't these companies stopping manufacture of these potentially toxic chemicals in their products now in order to not be sued in the future?

Schapiro: I think there is a concern in U.S. industry that, basically, if they were to start removing chemicals they were using for years and finding alternatives, it puts them in a very tricky position. They don't want to be seen as acknowledging that those chemicals are dangerous to begin with, because once you acknowledge that a chemical was dangerous to begin with, you are then subject to legal action. And I don't think that's an illegitimate concern.

What happens here is that there's very little information provided to the U.S. government. So, the EPA has extremely limited power to look at test results or anything around chemicals. The FDA has almost no power to really oversee the chemicals used in cosmetics. But most Americans perceive them as being present. So, what's interesting to see is that really the regulatory bodies of the U.S. government really have very little oversight authority on these chemical questions. Nevertheless they do provide a path for a company to say it passed scrutiny by this agency or that agency, when the scrutiny was really pro forma pharma? As in pharmaceuticals?. ...

I think also that the idea that Europe is somehow defining what is or is not safe is a brand-new situation for many companies. They are used to having a regulatory system which they, to some extent, have contributed to. So, suddenly they have a brand-new regulatory system in Europe which they had nothing to do with and can't go do the usual stuff with campaign finance and lobbying and campaign contributions. It doesn't quite work like Washington. So, there was a time when America was the central place where action was taking place; for American companies that action is now shifting to Brussels. That's left them very disoriented.

We're not saying that these are bad people that want to poison us and so forth and so forth, but I think that there is a resistance to taking in the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests the dangers that are inherent in many of these chemicals.

Petrovic: What is the difference between the Americans and the EU approach certain hazardous and toxic chemicals?

Schapiro: The basic difference between the way Americans and the EU approach certain chemicals is something called the precautionary principle. The EU essentially abides by the principle that if enough body of evidence accumulates around the toxicity of a certain substance, whether it is a carcinogen or a reproductive toxin, whatever it is, rather than wait for what is the final bit of clinching evidence, they ban certain chemicals to essentially prevent whatever harm it is that could be happening from happening.

The United States tends to function under the assumption that final scientific proof on a question of chemical toxicity -- that there will be a final resolution of scientific doubts -- and then the agency can move forward.

Well, how often does that happen? Not very often. We saw it in the global warming debate; the United States was waiting for the final answer on global warming while the rest of the world was seeing the accumulation of the evidence, which they at some point decided to act upon. The same thing happens with chemicals. The EU is willing to act on an accumulation of scientific evidence that suggest problems down the line to prevent certain problems from happening.

The American industry argues that the more loose system in the United States helps encourage innovation, and to some extent, perhaps at a certain point in our history that might have been true. But, now if you look at it, the imposition of principles to take the most toxic chemicals out of products in Europe, which is happening now as we speak, is giving rise to a huge industry in green chemistry that is being prompted by the industry.

Petrovic: How did this fall of American environmental leadership happen over the course of 25 years?

Schapiro: I think these last six years have been a remarkable retreat.

Petrovic:Just these last six years?

Schapiro: Well, I think these years have been more dramatic. I do think that Clinton's EPA could have done a lot more than it did. There has been a very dramatic and active retreat from the very principles of environmental protection over the last five to six years. I think there has been very little effort to even pretend to be protecting the environment in this current administration.

Petrovic: How extreme do you think the problem of toxic chemicals in everyday products is?

Schapiro: I'm not one of these apocalyptic guys; I'm not one of these Armageddon types thinking that everything is toxic. We make trade-offs in the world. We make trade-offs everyday -- we put a light on everyday.

Nor should people walk around freaked out that everything they're touching is toxic, but I think they have a right to know. If there is a toxic substance in something, they should have a right to know and then decide whether they want to use it. Like, for example, I smoke. If I do smoke, and I make a decision to smoke, I know exactly what I'm doing. I know there are certain risks associated with it.

So, I think one of the issues of the toxicity of everyday products is that so much of this stuff we don't know. We don't know because the manufacturers are not required to tell us or tell the government what's in their products. No. 1 is to require a full disclosure as to the substances that are in all the products that we buy every day so that people can decide. Americans have every right to ask of their government what's going on.