The European Chemicals Agency, which started operations in June in its Helsinki headquarters, marks the latest chapter in the European Union’s efforts to address consumer needs and concerns though market and business regulations.
(Similar programs already in place have included antitrust regulation in the computer industry and rules imposing greater consumer privacy.) With its corresponding regulatory legislation, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals), the new EU program requires companies to prove that a chemical is safe before they put it on the market.
This approach is the exact opposite of current US policy in which regulators have to prove that a chemical is harmful in order for it to be pulled from the market.
The EU initiative has aroused transatlantic controversy. But now that it has been pushed through in Europe, it is causing American companies with markets in Europe to take into account the new requirements, often across their whole production, in everything from processed food to household furnishings and beauty products.
Supporters defend the step as helping the environment and protecting the health of individuals, Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International Environmental Law, believes that the new regulations will “compel companies to be more responsible for their products…they’ll have to know more about the chemicals they make, what their products are and where they go.”
For example, any chemical suspected of causing cancer or other health problems will be placed on a new list of “substances of very high concern” and all of this data will be made accessible to the public for the first time via the internet. Supporters hope that by making information - such as the “high concern list” - available to the public, consumers will shirk from certain products and the subsequent decline in demand will pressure manufacturers to halt production of dangerous chemicals.
American chemical manufacturers and the Bush administration have strongly opposed the new EU measures because they believe that they will hurt manufacturers and offer minimal benefits to the consumer. In order to continue selling to the EU market of nearly 500 million people, US manufacturers like DuPont Chemicals will have to spend “tens of millions” of dollars to register chemicals and also pull major products that contain chemicals placed on the list of “substances of very high concern.”
In the absence of similar strong federal regulations for chemicals in the US, individual states have taken it upon themselves to address consumer concerns. Last month, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) reintroduced the Kid Safe Chemical Bill to Congress. The bill proposes that all chemicals used in baby bottles, children’s toys and other products are proven to be safe before they are put on the market - a philosophy that echoes the EU approach invoking the “precautionary principle” favored in Europe and gaining ground in some quarters in the US.
“Chemical Law Has Global Impact,” Washington Post, 12 June 2008
“European Chemicals Agency: Turning REACH into Reality,” Speech by José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission, 3 June 2008
“Lautenberg, Solis, Waxman Introduce Legislation To Protect Americans From Hazardous Chemicals In Consumer Products,” 20 May 2008