Literally tens of thousands of chemicals on the market have never been tested for their impact on human health.
The chemical industry thinks this is a good thing. Safety testing is too expensive, the chemical companies say. Chemical manufacturers and users handle chemicals responsibly to make sure people are not inadvertently exposed to them. And these tens of thousands of chemicals have proven their value and safety in real life tests -- they have been on the market, contributing to higher standards of living, with no discernible harmful impact on health.
Some people take a different point of view. One way or another, they note, people are exposed to thousands of chemicals -- in the food they eat, the water they drink, the air they breathe, through contact with consumer products that contain chemicals, or by other means. There is now clear evidence that people are accumulating a growing "body burden" of industrial chemicals trapped in their tissues. According to this view, permitting potentially dangerous chemicals on the market without pre-screening and an assessment of the risk they pose is a kind of societal Russian Roulette. The only sensible thing to do is test chemicals to ensure they are safe.
This second view happens to be shared by the European Commission, the governing body of the European Union.
In 2001, the European Commission issued a White Paper containing plans for a new European chemicals regulation policy. The policy, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), would require chemical companies to test their products before putting them on market. Substances which are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction and persistent organic pollutants would require affirmative authorization before they could be placed on the market.
When the Commission announced the REACH proposal, the chemical industry went berserk.
So did the U.S. government.
A September 2003 report from the U.S.-based Environmental Health Fund documented a full-fledged campaign by the U.S. government to derail REACH.
The report, based on internal government papers obtained from anonymous sources and under the Freedom of Information Act, documents a series of meetings between U.S. government officials and chemical industry representatives.
Although industry representatives from the American Chemistry Council and the American Plastics Council at times pushed U.S. government officials to work more aggressively to block adoption of REACH, the government papers show that it was Bush administration officials who more frequently complained that industry was not opposing the plan vigorously enough.
"The U.S. chemicals industry has been slow to respond to the White Paper [initially proposing REACH]," asserted a briefing paper for Assistant Secretary of Commerce Linda Conlin. But government bureaucrats didn't have time to wait for slothful industry to take action, according to the briefing memo. "Because of the slow pace of industry response to the Strategy . Commerce, USTR and EPA drafted a preliminary set of questions on the Strategy and provided them to the Commission in December. USTR also met with Commission officials at that time."
Eventually, the Bush administration produced an undated "nonpaper" criticizing REACH. Its language borrowed directly from industry attacks on the proposed European regulations.
Top administration officials enlisted in the campaign to block adoption of REACH. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2002 sent an "action request" cable to U.S. embassies in EU countries, urging them to raise concerns with local government officials, and in 2003 sent a cable directly to European countries, urging them to stop the European Commission from adopting REACH. The U.S. Ambassador to the EU, Rockwell Schnabel, repeatedly criticized REACH in public and private settings. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans in May 2002 assured a Dupont executive that the United States was working actively to sabotage REACH.
The U.S. State Department failed to respond to our requests for comment on the U.S. lobbying campaign.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) hasn't been so shy. After the report documenting the U.S. campaign was published, Greg Lebedev, ACC president and CEO, told Chemical Week, "We would be mad as hell if the Bush administration didn't lobby on behalf of American manufacturing interests."
Meanwhile, the European chemical industry was hard at work. In September, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac sent a letter to the European Commission criticizing REACH.
Underlying the industry's rabid opposition to REACH is the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle asserts that the entity introducing a product into the environment or food supply must bear the burden of showing it is safe. The REACH rules requiring authorization for hazardous substances to be permitted on the market embody the precautionary principle.
It is a model of effective government action that industry generally, and the chemical industry in particular, hopes to block at any price.
Already, the campaign to pull back REACH has had a major impact.
At the end of September, the European Commission announced it was scaling back REACH. The revisions closely track complaints from the United States.
"REACH appears to be moving away from the White Paper and closer to the White House," says Joseph DiGangi, who authored the Environmental Health Fund report on U.S. efforts to undermine REACH.
Still, DiGangi says, important elements are retained -- including the requirement that hazardous chemicals obtain authorization before being allowed on the market.
More changes may be forthcoming. The European Commission is expected to finalize REACH rules by the end of this month.
At stake is not only the health and well-being of the people of the European Union, but the creation of a model and precedent for chemical regulation and for precautionary action generally.
The choice is as simple as this: Err on the side of safety, or take your chances and see what happens.