Friday, October 17, 2008

Protecting People from Poisons

The European Union has just come out with new restrictions on chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases—and U.S. chemical companies and the Bush administration are moaning and groaning.

New laws of the European Union require that chemical manufacturers show that a chemical is safe before it enters commerce.

This, notes the Washington Post, ”is the opposite of policies in the United States” where we depend on the government to act, if it does, and it comes “at a time when consumers are increasingly worried about the long-term consequences of chemical exposure.”

The European approach is an outgrowth of the Precautionary Principle which states that if an activity or product might cause severe or irreversible harm to people or the environment the burden of proof falls on those behind that activity or product—in this case, chemicals—to show that it would not do harm. The Precautionary Principle has been spreading around the world in recent years.

The Center for International Environmental Law says the new EU laws will “compel companies to be more responsible for their products.”

In the U.S., control of toxic chemicals has been—well, a sham. The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976 but, noted the Washington Post in its article on the new European Union laws, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has banned only five chemicals since that time.

Indeed, said the Post, the EPA hasn’t even been able to ban asbestos under the act, even though it is “widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries.”

There are 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market, noted the Post, and the U.S. government “has had little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of those chemicals.”

American chemical companies would have to either comply with the new EU laws or lose access to a market of 27 countries and 500 million people. Mike Walls, director of government and regulatory affairs for the American Chemistry Council, complains that some its chemical manufacturer members will be unable to “afford the cost of compliance” with the new European Union laws.

What about all the people who get sick and die, and the cost to them of the current way toxic chemicals have been distributed?

The European Union is on the right track—and the U.S. should have similar laws protecting people from poisons.

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