THE TOXIC CHEMISTRY OF EVERYDAY PRODUCTS
1976, the U.S. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control
Act, which granted the government the authority to track industrial
chemicals and to place restrictions on any that proved harmful
to humans or the environment. But . . . every chemical already
on the market before 1979 was exempted from the law’s
primary screening requirements. Ninety-five percent of all chemicals
in circulation have never undergone any testing for toxicity
or their impact on the environment . . . including thousands
of highly toxic substances.” From Toxic Inaction, Harpers,
Oct. 2007, Mark Schapiro.
Petrovic spoke with Mark
Schapiro in Berkeley at the Center
for Investigative Reporting, where he is currently
the editorial director.
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 and What's at Stake for American
Power, 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.
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.
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.
PETROVIC: Why did you choose to write this book now?
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.
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
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.
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
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 pyjamas, out
of our cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy."
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
MARK SCHAPIRO: I think these last six years have been a remarkable
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
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.
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.
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.
piece is published with the permission of AlterNet.
The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake
for American Power
by Mark Schapiro
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
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