Iraq is not the only place that is handing the United States its ass.
The European Union surpassed America in 2005 to become the world’s largest, richest economy. America’s former dominance had made it the global arbiter of health and safety standards, but its decline may be the best news in a long time.
The E.U. is wielding its market clout to compel producers, including U.S. corporate giants, to eliminate toxic ingredients. REACH, the E.U. regulations that govern chemical use and production, recently forced Procter & Gamble to exclude suspected endocrine disputers and carcinogens from its products. As detailed in Mark Schapiro’s new book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, Procter & Gamble, while insisting its original line was safe, is now marketing many of the E.U. formulas in America.
Why is the United States, which practically invented consumer protection, now lagging behind the E.U., and in some cases, trailing Japan, China and Mexico? For one thing, Europe applies the precautionary principle, which requires that products be proven safe before release. In the United States, regulatory agencies shift the burden of proof by assuming products are safe unless proven dangerous. By this method, body counts often end up proving risk.
U.S. industry argues that America doesn’t need the precautionary principle because it has a tort system that, by allowing large punitive damages, deters companies from releasing harmful products. (The estimated 44,000 dead from FDA-approved Vioxx no doubt rest assured.) The disingenuousness of this argument is laid bare by the millions of dollars corporations spend lobbying for tort “reform” legislation to limit company liability and consumer damages.
Armies of corporate lobbyists fill the troughs of both political parties: The main dish is campaign contributions, followed by a rich dessert of revolving-door corporate jobs for bureaucrats and the defeated or retiring politicians who played ball by accepting shoddy data, quashing investigations, or undermining legislation and regulation.
Predictably, an army of U.S. lobbyists invaded the E.U. following its rise in regulatory power. In October, a news organization called ChemicalWatch warned that “the cost of implementing REACH could run into billions of dollars for U.S. industry and escalate significantly unless companies work together.” ChemicalWatch, a self-described “business guide to REACH,” is half right.
The European Commission estimates that REACH will cost the EU $4 billion to $7.5 billion over 11 years, but it will also save $78 billion over 30 years because of fewer illnesses from chemical exposures. When University College London factored in production loss, the 30-year savings topped $400 billion.
Under European health plans, those savings are public, which means that society has a huge financial stake in preventing illness by reining in corporations. The United States, on the other hand, with private insurance and hospitals, lacks the organized, powerful constituencies that can insist that public savings in health costs trump corporate profits.
One of industries’ greatest allies is a blame-the-victim approach to public health. U.S. government agencies regularly present cancer prevention as a personal lifestyle responsibility – eat your veggies, exercise, get screened – rather than as an imperative to define carcinogens and ban those likely to harm, no matter what it costs industry.
But the U.S. model is gaining ground. A recent headline in Britain’s Independent read, “Unveiled: radical prescription for our health crisis.” The article reported on London’s new embrace of lifestyle solutions, and highlighted the British government’s proposal to concentrate on personal strategies for losing weight and quitting smoking, while ignoring the issue of toxic chemicals that the public ingests.
The E.U., however, seems determined to examine those health consequences by requiring testing on new products, as well as on many of the 62,000 chemicals – including benzenes and furans – that Washington grandfathered in without review under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), virtually admitting that it is gambling with public health in a rigged game, calls its risk assessment software Monte Carlo. Never has the adage garbage-in, garbage-out had more literal and lethal implications. As Schapiro notes, “The more variables the EPA puts into Monte Carlo – genetics, behavior, alleged flaws in the scientific method to assess toxicity, benefits vs. cost – the less predictable the outcome, the less clear the danger.” And the more subject to bias.
That uncertainty – even putting aside conflicts of interest – is why the precautionary principle is so critical. It is one thing to bet your life on an experimental drug when no other therapy exists. It is another to let corporations weigh the cost of potential lawsuits against the benefits of a quick profit from shinier lipstick, nastier pesticides or snack food with longer shelf life.
My heart (and liver) is betting on the E.U. My brain worries that corporations will put profits first.