Issue Date: February 11, 2008
Upon reading "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power," by Mark Schapiro, I thought I would be in for another episode of the currently all-too-common antichemical rant about how artificial sweeteners are destroying our health, how sodium lauryl sulfate is unraveling the fabric of society, and how cooking in pans lined with fluorinated polymers leads to an early date with the undertaker. But this was not the case at all.
I must admit to being especially sensitive to scientifically unfounded claims about the toxicity of consumer products. As the director of McGill University's Office for Science & Society, much of my time is spent fielding questions from the public concerning the impact of chemicals on our health and environment, and I frequently witness the panic that ensues from out-of-context, overzealous media reporting. A single questionable study that purports to show a link between parabens, a common preservative, and breast cancer can quickly become entrenched as "fact" by repetitious reporting. Revelation that trace amounts of bisphenol A leach out of polycarbonate plastics can unfortunately precipitate indiscriminate condemnation of all plastics.
This is the kind of fear-mongering I thought I would get a chance to expose when I was asked to review "Exposed." I was wrong. Schapiro does not indiscriminately condemn chemicals. As editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, he puts his journalistic talent to good use. While recognizing that risk-benefit analysis should always be the cornerstone of chemical regulation, Schapiro eloquently addresses the complexity of such determinations and concludes, with some evidence, that the U.S., which used to be a world leader in regulating chemical safety, has now fallen behind Europe and, surprisingly, even China, in protecting its citizens.
Clearly, Europe and the U.S. have different regulatory philosophies. Europe, with REACH (Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals) and RoHS (Removal of Hazardous Substances from electronics), emphasizes the precautionary principle, which maintains that a chemical should not be marketed unless it has been shown to be safe. American chemical producers are of the opinion that the precautionary principle, while portraying an image of motherhood and apple pie, is naive. Determining risk based upon the inherent toxic properties of a chemical is unrealistic, they say; it is actual exposure that matters.
In "Exposed," a Procter & Gamble spokesman supports this argument with an analogy. "A tiger is inherently dangerous, but meeting one in the wild presents a different risk from seeing one in a zoo," the spokesman is quoted as saying in the book. "There may be inherent toxicity to a particular chemical," he adds, "but if you use it under certain conditions, the exposure is minimal and presents no risk." True enough. But Europeans would retort that even in a zoo, a tiger can reach out and inflict injury or perhaps even escape—a nightmare scenario that actually occurred at the San Francisco Zoo late last year. And there may be gentler animals that can replace tigers in zoos, perhaps even without needing to be caged.
Phthalates, as Schapiro describes, are an interesting case in point. Rodent trials have shown interference with androgen function, and a human study made a big splash with its finding that women who had higher blood levels of phthalates gave birth to male babies with a reduced distance between the anus and the genitals, seemingly a consequence of hormonal disruption. European regulators have concluded that it is therefore better to err on the side of safety and have removed questionable phthalates from children's toys. U.S. producers claim that feeding phthalates to rats is not the same as playing with toys and that phthalate syndrome is a rat syndrome, not a human one. But as Schapiro points out, toys have not disappeared from European stores. Alternative and apparently safer plasticizers, such as 1,2-cyclohexanedicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester, have been developed.
There are numerous other cases of chemicals commonly used in the U.S. but not allowed in European products, apparently without compromising efficacy or availability. How can the same scientific data lead to such different practices? It is a matter of interpretation. Americans want conclusive data before acting, while for Europeans, the possibility of harm is enough to bring about regulation, as long as safer replacement products are available.
This means that Americans are buying products that would not be legal in Europe or, in some instances, in China. Canada is also leaning toward the European model and, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, is reassessing the safety of many chemical substances that were introduced before comprehensive environmental protection laws were created.
Birch planks, we learn in "Exposed," as sold in China, cannot contain more than 0.1 ppm of formaldehyde. The U.S. has no such standards and imports wood from China that may have as much as 3 ppm of the chemical. Is this a health risk? Who knows. But 0.1 ppm in any case presents a smaller risk and is obviously achievable.
Recently, North Americans have become leery of some Chinese products because of toxicity issues, but it seems, ironically, that China regulates some products for local consumption more stringently than those for export. The Chinese have also introduced legislation, much like in Europe, curtailing the use of mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium, and certain fire retardants in electrical devices. As tons of such equipment are discarded annually, the leaching of toxic substances into groundwater is becoming a gloomy possibility.
The U.S. view is that such restrictions are excessive and amount to trade barriers, since some products that can be sold in the U.S. cannot be marketed in Europe. REACH, however, applies to all manufacturers and does not favor Europeans. As Schapiro informs us, a European Commission study, with which industry actually agrees, calculates that REACH will cost European industry about $8 billion over the next 11 years. But about 4,500 occupational cancer deaths will be prevented each year, and there will be a saving of some $60 billion over three decades by reducing the cost of health care from ailments related to chemical exposure.
Schapiro has collected a great deal of intriguing information. He mostly presents facts and allows the reader to formulate his or her own conclusions, although a bias about U.S. regulations being lax is evident. And he may well be right. Of course there is plenty of fodder here for debate. Schapiro, for example, attributes a greater risk to cosmetics and genetically modified organisms than I would. Some of his points, though, as summarized in the book's concluding paragraph, are beyond debate:
"Power has shifted. In the process, American citizens are being put in a position that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: in some instances a dumping ground for goods not wanted elsewhere in the world, in other instances the accidental beneficiaries of protective standards created by another government over which they have no influence. The United States is no longer where it imagines itself to be, at the center of a universe around which the rest of the world revolves." Perhaps a surprising revelation, but one to which we should certainly be "Exposed."
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