New European chemical safety regulations reach around the world | The Ethicurean: Chew the right thing.

The European Union is changing the rules for chemicals, requiring that industry demonstrate that a chemical is safe before using it in consumer products such as cosmetics, food packaging, water bottles, and durable goods. This approach, sometimes called “the precautionary principle,” is in stark contrast to the approach in the United States, where a chemical is considered “innocent until proven carcinogenic.”* (A detailed description of the history and implementation of the precautionary principle can be found in a newsletter from the Cornell University Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors in PDF format.)

Although the regulations apply to chemicals used within the E.U., the global economy means that they will have impact far beyond the E.U. borders. An article by Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post last week explains some of the implications and the response of the U.S. chemical industry.

As part of the regulation’s implementation, the E.U. will create a list of “substances of very high concern” for chemicals that are suspected to cause cancer or other serious health problems. One of the chemicals expected to be on the list is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient in teflon that Elanor wrote about recently.

To further understand the situation, it is helpful to revisit the coverage of “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power,” by Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the span of a few weeks, Schapiro had a long article at Harper’s Magazine, was interviewed on Fresh Air, appeared on KQED’s Forum, answered five questions in the San Francisco Chronicle, and was interviewed by Michael Pollan in Berkeley. Although I haven’t read the book, I heard the radio programs and attended the Pollan event.

Some of Schapiro’s findings and arguments that I found most interesting:

In each of the links I provide above, Schapiro tells an important story about how little we know about the chemicals to which we are exposed every day and how global economic power is shifting to the European Union.

Also of note is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database, a huge collection of information about the mysterious ingredients in your personal care products and cosmetics.

* I first heard the “innocent until proven carcinogenic” phrase uttered by Michael Pollan during the interview with Mark Schapiro mentioned above.


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