Way back in 1976, the United States was a model of environmental progress. The Toxic Substances Control Act ordered the EPA to review all newly-introduced chemicals, evaluating how they were to be used and handled, the byproducts of their manufacture, and what exposure would do to human health. But it grandfathered those already on the market -- and thirty years later, these still comprise 99% of the ingredients in our made environment. The Al Gore-created High Production Volume Challenge Program was a step in the right direction, but relies on voluntary industry cooperation and is deeply flawed. Only a handful of the 30,000 chemicals now sold have been evaluated.
In Europe, the unknowns are much the same, but they're doing something about it. Planned for nearly a decade and scheduled to be ratified this fall, REACH -- an E.U. regulatory framework for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals -- sets a deadline for chemical manufacturers to share information on how their products are made, how they should be handled, and what they do to the environment and people. Unevaluated chemicals will be barred from the market. By contrast, the EPA can restrict a chemical only if they can prove the need in court -- something that has proved nearly impossible to do. Since losing the asbestos battle in 1993, the EPA has been painfully hesitant. Its lone regulatory victory -- on a carcinogenic Teflon ingredient -- still relies on voluntary industry cooperation, and came far too late. On other dangerous chemicals, like the PBDEs commonly used in flame retardants, the EPA has been so slow to act that individual states have beat them to it.
Both environmentalists and industry have criticized REACH. But whatever the outcome, it's at least a noble effort, reflecting an agreement between European public and private interests: chemical production and use need to be sustainable. REACH embodies the principles of green chemistry: Rather using poorly-understood chemicals on a massive scale, and simply trying to deal with their damage later, chemicals should be designed sensibly and thoroughly tested, ensuring as best we can that they won't mess up the environment or ourselves.
By contrast, the Bush Administration has tried to destroy and dilute REACH, while doing nothing to prepare industry for it. While Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have each proposed legislation modeled after REACH, the bills remain stuck in committee. If they fail, it's up to individual companies to meet REACH standard themselves -- something the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production is trying to help them do. Otherwise, stateside exporters could lose their European markets. Even worse, the U.S. chemical industry could squander a chance to go green, ultimately harming both people and environment, and defining itself in the global economy as a producer of unsafe, low-quality materials.
Let's not forget that REACH is important for another reason too. It forces all those who want to sell products in the EU, to comply. Since everyone wants to sell goodies in the world's largest market, REACH has global consequences. Manufacturers from all over the planet are being forced to clean up their act.
Despite the criticism of REACH, this is the strength of EU measures, they go far beyond what they've originally been intended to achieve.
The best recent example of EU policy shaping international business decisions is WEEE (http://www.dti.gov.uk/innovation/sustainability/weee/page30269.html) - Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Many global companies have changed their products world-wide because it's cheaper to do things one way (i.e. the EU way) than 2.