The European Union has approved new chemical guidelines that could affect businesses around the word as companies scramble to meet the increased safety requirements.
The laws will require companies to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before it can be used in manufacturing and commercial products. The laws themselves are the opposite of those in the United States which require companies to demonstrate a product is harmful before it can be removed from use.
Some companies are wary of the changes because they claim it will incur billions in additional expenses to meet the new regulations and that those costs may eventually be passed onto consumers. The changes have been vehemently opposed by US based chemical companies and the Bush administration which in 2002 directed European ambassadors to oppose the proposed legislation when meeting with foreign legislators.
Already companies have begun searching for safer materials to make everything from bike helmets to shower curtains and cleaning products. Companies that fail to comply with the new standards risk losing access to 500 million consumers in 27 countries.
The new laws will require manufacturers to study and report on the risks posed by specific chemicals and that data will be available online to the general public and regulatory agencies.
Chemicals suspected of causing cancer or other health problems will be listed on a list of “substances of very high concern” and manufacturers who wish to use that chemical must receive authorization.
One chemical likely to be added to that list is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The chemical is commonly used in the production of Teflon but does not break down in the environment and accumulates in animal tissue and drinking water. In 2006 the EPA voted to label the chemical as a likely carcinogen but it is still used in production. Major manufacturers of Teflon including DuPont have agreed to end production by 2015.
The United States passed legislation in 1976 on chemicals in products with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. However as a compromise to the industry, more than 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in because they were already in commercial use. The government requires companies to report toxicity information and then the government decides whether additional tests are required based on that information. If a substance is shown to cause harm, the EPA asks companies to voluntarily cease production.
In the more than 30 years since it was passed, the EPA has required additional testing on fewer than 200 of the 80,000 chemicals within the U.S. market with five chemicals being banned since 1976. The difficulty in banning a substance is apparent when analyzing the number of times the EPA and Congress have failed to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen.
The laws come at a time when consumers are becoming more and more concerned about what chemicals and materials are in their products. This level of concern was a major factor when retailers across the United States and Canada pulled baby bottles from their shelves after reports that health officials were concerned about possible health effects caused by the chemical bisphenol A which can be found in some of those products.
Concerns about industrial contamination are legitimate after a recent study by the Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 industrial chemicals in the cord blood of newborns.
Measures similar to the new EU regulations that would overhaul chemical regulation in the United States have been recently introduced but have yet to make any progress.