Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, a new book by Mark Schapiro examines how America, once a leader in environmental protection, came to allow potentially toxic and mutagenic chemicals, banned by the EU, into everyday products.
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 Kabuki theater, notes Schapiro bitterly and points out that the EU, on the other hand, is able to enforce its writ better.
"No, we can actually take these particular toxic chemicals out of these products, out of our computers, out of our pajamas, out of our cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy," the EU asserts.
So, essentially they're calling the bluff of the United States. They're calling the bluff of the U.S. industry by demonstrating that even after taking out substances deemed toxic the economy can be kept going.
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.
Ironically only 25 years ago critics were slamming the US for exporting a range of pesticides and other chemicals banned in that country, but now some companies export to US products banned in Europe. And thus US comes to be equated with the developing countries on that score, the book points out.
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, rather than wait for what is the final bit of clinching evidence, they ban the chemicals concerned without much of an ado.
But the 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.
Well, how often does that happen? Not very often. In the global warming debate; for instance, the United States waited for the final answer on global warming while the rest of the world was moving ahead to face the challenges posed by climate change.
Also the American industry argues that the more loose system in the United States helps encourage innovation.
But look at Europe, where thanks to some tough environmental laws, a whole new industry based on green chemistry is emerging over there.
There has also been a very dramatic and active retreat from the very principles of environmental protection under the Bush regime.
Schapiro insists that while people should not become hysterical, imagining everything they're touching is toxic, at the same time they have a right to know.
"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," he notes.
This potentially dangerous situation should change, he says.