Apr 18, 2008

Author says U.S. is a dumping ground for unsafe products

LANSING -- The United States is the dumping ground for unsafe products and products manufactured with harmful chemicals, according to internationally acclaimed journalist and author Mark Schapiro.

Schapiro is the editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and spent more than two years writing his book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power. He was the featured speaker at the Ecology Center's annual membership meeting last week, as well as making a stop in Lansing to talk to lawmakers.

“The U.S. is becoming the recipient of products that are banned in other parts of the world,” he said. “That will only increase in the future. I never thought that would happen here.”

That is already happening with toys made in China, and the U.S. market has created a situation where products – such as cosmetics, personal care products and cleaning products -- with less stringent controls and regulation are made for the U.S. market and safer products go to places like the European Union. Schapiro’s book looks at the economic effect the EU’s decision to implement stricter controls is having on the U.S. In 2005 the EU passed the U.S. as the world’s largest consumer market, and it is also requiring the manufacturers of consumer products to eliminate potentially harmful chemicals.

“The European Union has taken a proactive approach to getting these harmful chemicals out of products,” Schapiro said. “The EU takes an approach that it wants to prevent hazards before it causes harm.”

In the EU market, it’s up to the manufacturers to prove the chemicals in their products are safe, but in the U.S. it’s the exact opposite. In other words, the burden of proof in the U.S. is on the consumer to prove something is unsafe. To prevent or remove a chemical from the market, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration or individuals in court must demonstrate that the chemical presents severe risk to humans. Schapiro also said the problem is compounded in the U.S. because the proof must be overwhelming and beyond a shadow of a doubt, and a perfect example of the absence of 100 percent proof is the debate over global warming.

“In science, it’s very hard to come up with absolutes,” he said. “That often leaves us in a state of paralysis.”

Schapiro said that while hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals are being phased out with safer alternatives and other chemicals are being vetted to see if they are safe in the EU, there has not been a chemical removed from the U.S. marketplace in 18 years. He also said more than 6,000 chemicals were grandfathered in when the law governing chemicals in consumer products went into effect in 1981, and those chemicals have not been completely vetted for safety.

“The fact is 90 percent of the chemicals in the market here have never been vetted,” he said. “The EU is requiring data on every chemical.”

Schapiro said he realizes chemicals are necessary, but he said there are safe alternatives that our chemists and engineers should be looking into. The fear with more regulation in the U.S. is that jobs will be lost and the cost of making the products will increase. Schapiro said that’s true in the short run, but profits are up in the EU. Schapiro said that’s because when given a choice between a similarly priced product made in the U.S. and one made in the EU, consumerswill choose an EU product over a U.S.-made product because they know the EU product is safer.

“We live in a world where chemicals do a lot for us in everyday life; there’s no question,” Schapiro said. “I spent a lot of time looking at the economic effects of the EU effort.

“A year after they made the decision to implement the regulations, they had their biggest profit ever in cosmetics,” he said. “There is no question that there is an initial cost to change, but there is a savings in the long run.”

The EU standard has had a positive effect because many companies are quietly – very quietly – abandoning the practice of making a separate version of a product for the EU market and another for the U.S. market, and they are now just making the safer and higher standard product for both markets.

To be sure, some companies are fighting the change tooth and nail. “We have seen a major increase in the lobbying effort by U.S. companies,” Schapiro said. “You have seen K-Street in Washington move wholesale to Brussels because that’s where the changes are taking place.”

But because of the higher EU standards many U.S. companies, such as Dow Chemical in Michigan, are scrambling to release data on the chemicals they use in their products, and Schapiro said that would benefit U.S. consumers.

“You have a major company right here in Michigan assembling a whole array of toxic data on chemicals they never had to before,” he said. “For the first time Americans are going to have a real choice on the products they use.”

“The bottom line is that the rest of the world is finding alternatives to these toxic chemicals,” Schapiro said.

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