Last summer, while Americans were focused on the worsening crisis in Iraq and the intensifying presidential campaign, the US chemical industry was consumed by plans at the EU’s Environment Commission to complete the details of a proposed regulation known as REACH–Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. For the $500 billion chemical industry, REACH threatens a revolution in chemical regulation–upending decades-long practices that were pioneered in the United States.
In 1976 the US Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, which required chemicals introduced after the law took effect in 1979 to be tested before being registered for use. The problem with TSCA–or what critics call the “Toxic Substances Conversation Act”–is that 80 percent of the chemicals on the market today were introduced before 1979. But Europe at that time followed the US model, so in effect TSCA established the global standard. No more. REACH is the first effort to secure environmental data on some 30,000 chemicals that have been on the market in the United States and around the world without any significant testing of their toxicity on human health and the environment.
These include an array of highly toxic substances that were effectively grandfathered into the market by TSCA, including industrial solvents like ethyl benzene, known to cause nerve damage; heavy metals like cadmium, an ingredient in many paints and industrial ceramics that can cause kidney failure; and a family of plastic byproducts, called furans, that are potent carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Many of these chemicals have already been found in high concentration in the blood of Americans and Europeans; during a World Health Organization convention in Budapest last June, the World Wildlife Fund International revealed forty-four different hazardous chemicals in the bloodstream of top EU officials, including then-Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, now the vice president of communications for the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU.
The proposed regulations, according to Robert Donkers, one of the authors of REACH and now posted in Washington as environment counselor for the European Commission’s US delegation, evolved out of the realization that little was known about chemicals contained in a vast array of consumer products. “There was great political anxiety in Europe when we discovered that carcinogenic chemicals were being released from consumer products like diapers and softeners in baby toys. We discovered that neither consumers nor the government was informed about the chemical properties of what is in those and other products and how they break down. An overhaul was needed.”
Under REACH, chemicals determined to be “carcinogens, mutagens or repro[ductive] toxins” would have to be taken off the market within a decade. According to the EPA’s own standards, this could amount to as many as 1,400 chemicals. For other chemicals, REACH establishes several layers of testing for toxicity–with strictures that grow tougher as the quantity and risk increases. The proscriptions also apply to chemicals in manufactured goods: REACH encourages substitutions for chemicals that pose “potentially serious or irreversible threats” to human health. A new European Chemicals Agency would administer the program from Helsinki.
The REACH directive represents an upheaval in the basic philosophy of chemical regulation, flipping the American presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head by placing the burden of proof on manufacturers to prove chemicals are safe–what is known as the “precautionary principle.” REACH adds extra bite with a requirement that toxicity data be posted publicly on the new agency’s website. Thus, test results that were once tightly held by chemical companies will suddenly be available to citizens and regulators across the globe. That prospect foreshadows trouble for US chemical producers.
“The chemical industry is scared that the American people might not want to be second-class world citizens,” says Charlotte Brody, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, a Washington, DC-based coalition of healthcare professionals. “If people in Europe have chemicals in their toys that are not dangerous, maybe we don’t want those same chemicals for our kids.” With REACH, the Europeans hit a powerful nerve. The chemical industry launched an intensive lobbying campaign, conducted in parallel with the Bush Administration, to derail the proposed directive before it becomes law.