Revolution by the Book: The AK Press Blog
Top Ten New Items in AK Distro! (May)
By Suzanne | May 4, 2009
EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products — By Mark Schapiro. This one was a hit in hardcover when we shared a booth with Chelsea Green Publishing at the Green Festival last year, but now that it’s out in paperback, even people who don’t attend Green Festivals can afford it! A great (and shocking) look at the toxic chemicals that lurk where you least expect them. http://www.akpress.org/2009/items/exposed
Wednesday 15 October 2008
by: Leslie Thatcher, Truthout Book Review
Leslie Thatcher reviews Mark Schapiro's book, "Exposed," which describes how US corporatist ideology trumps common sense, providing US citizens with second-class, third-world protections against toxins, while slashing America's competitive edge in the global marketplace.
Mark Schapiro, editorial director for San Francisco's Center for Investigative Reporting, has written a book about America's chemical industries from an international relations perspective that vividly illuminates the - possibly inevitable - consequences of a corporate-dominated, anti-regulatory regime in one sector of the economy, just when people are beginning to realize the consequences of this type of regime in the financial sector. This valuable, lucidly written, well-documented and blessedly concise examination of how the US has lost its competitive edge in key industries through its protection of corporate rather than citizens' interests could serve as a textbook case of how deregulation has backfired on the very corporations which have spent so much time, energy and money lobbying for it. Schapiro's book is sparingly polemical, so he does not explicitly assert that the very time, energy and money spent wriggling out of regulation could more profitably have been spent on innovation, product research and development: instead, Schapiro satisfies himself with proving that case.
The book starts with a meeting of US engineers in early 2006. They have just learned they have less than six months to redesign all electronic devices for export to Europe to comply with the European Union's "RoHS," the directive "on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment." Six highly toxic substances commonly used in electronics - mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium and two polybrominated biphenyl flame retardants - had been banned. The engineers would have to completely rethink the ingredients of all the electronic products their companies sold or they'd lose access to the largest and most affluent economy in the world: the European Union, with its population of 450 million, a GDP exceeding that of the US, and a pattern of international commerce that makes it the largest single trading partner for every continent but Australia.
As Truthout has reported (1) over the years, Europe has adopted the precautionary principle (2) with respect to its chemical industries, a far more aggressive standard to protect its citizens' health than that applied in the US, where conclusive evidence of a chemical's toxicity is required before it is banned. As Schapiro documents, "conclusive" is an extremely elusive standard, especially when industry controls the scientific data, funds election campaigns and makes intensive use of lobbyists. As the history of the tobacco industry illustrates, it can take years - years during which much irreversible harm is done - to conclusively prove harm.
With my own background in economics, I am frequently surprised at how rarely "free market" proponents promote the perfect information that is a necessary precondition for free markets to function. Schapiro, however, highlights the inequality of knowledge between consumers and producers that Joseph Stiglitz calls "information asymmetry" and invokes as a central flaw of market capitalism. (3) As we have seen with tobacco - industry knowledge about the impact of products is shrouded in "trade secrecy" and "proprietary information," although consumers cannot possibly be construed as making free choices when they are unaware of the potential impacts of the products they buy and use. Now smart European regulation is revealing new or previously private information about chemical health and environmental impacts and "European 'life-cycle analysis' is revealing how much the profits of US-manufactured goods are inflated by hiding the real costs of production and 'end of life' disposal." (4)
"Exposed" details how the differential regulation of various key segments of the chemical industry - cosmetics, plastics (phthalates, specifically), Persistent Organic Pollutants (also known as POPS), GMOs, electronic and vehicular waste disposal - have, in each instance, made Americans less safe than Europeans and made American industry less competitive as it struggles to catch up to European standards or looks for dumping grounds for products that are no longer state-of-the-art.
Those dumping grounds are all too often the US domestic market, where, as Schapiro describes in a subsequent chapter on the US regulatory regime, not even asbestos has been banned: thirty million pounds of it are still used annually "in an array of products." (5) After explaining how the 1976 US Toxic Substances Control Act controls very few substances - only five are banned by the EPA - Schapiro reports on how the US chemical industry and the American Chamber of Commerce, both directly and through the United States government, attempted to bring the kinds of pressure that shapes US legislation and regulation to bear on the European Union to oppose the European REACH legislation that "places the burden of proof on manufacturers to demonstrate that their products could be used safely. And ... proposed to limit the amount of health-related data that companies could claim was 'proprietary,' and to release that information on the European Chemical Agency's Web site ..." (6) This intrusion into Europe's affairs - an intrusion, moreover, that so flagrantly demonstrated the moral and imaginative bankruptcy of US industry as well as the Bush administration's position as industry's handmaid and enabler - was widely resented and backfired. Almost as a footnote to that story, Schapiro describes how industry in the US has been promoting the nomination of "industry-friendly" judges, creating a US judiciary ever less concerned to protect either the citizenry or the environment.
Schapiro's overarching argument is that a more rigorous regulatory regime ultimately costs industry less and is more realpolitik than Utopian as demand for Europe's safer, greener products and more transparent approach grows. It is difficult not to read his story with disgust for an American system that coddles the status quo and discourages innovation, that rewards investment in lobbying rather than investment in progress, and that, ostrich-like, ignores chemical hazards rather than entrepreneurially confronting them, discovering green replacements and improvements. As we are seeing in the financial system, our "free-marketeers" are mere freebooters who run to the nanny state for protection when their own greed, complacency and laziness come home to roost.
Schapiro is outraged that US industry - formerly a pace-setter for innovation and safety - should engineer its own relegation to second - or worst - place. He is astounded that the same companies that have successfully adapted their products to meet European requirements continue to use products Europe has identified as hazardous for US consumption - and to argue in the US that replacing them would be "too costly." He successfully documents how ideology and short-termism have worked not only against the American consumer and environment, but also against the global competitiveness and long-term viability of the very companies they supposedly "protect."
If there is to be a silver lining in the current crisis in finance, perhaps it will be the recognition that intelligent regulation pragmatically protecting the health and well-being of the citizens and the air, earth and water that are the foundation of any country's true wealth is a prerequisite for this country's return not even to leadership, but to membership of the world's "developed" countries. Mark Schapiro's book is a convincing argument for beginning that regulation of the American chemical industry.
In These Times
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.
To read the rest of this review, click here.
Americans' confidence in their government-sanctioned environmental and consumer protections receives another blow in investigative reporter Schapiro's exposÃ©, which explores such discomforting information as the 2005 U.S. Centers for Disease Control tests that found 148 toxic chemicals "in the bodies of 'Americans of all ages.'" The U.S.'s unique tendency to take no action against businesses and their products until a disaster occurs keeps them tied to 1970s standards—"exposed to substances from which increasing numbers of people around the world are being protected"—while "the principle of preventing harm before it happens, even in the face of imperfect scientific certainty," guides an increasing number of countries; by "creating legal and financial incentives," governments in Europe and Japan have kept citizens relatively safe from what contributes to the deaths "of at least 5 million people a year," according to the World Health Organization. Schapiro (co-author, with David Weir, of Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World) discovers toxins in personal care products, toys, electronics and foods which are, in some cases, manufactured solely for U.S. consumption, and traces them to the people and events responsible. Though a look at growing support for change in the U.S. provides some hope, a guide to action would have been an appropriate addition to Schapiro's prescient muckraking. (Sept.)
It is called the 'precautionary principle'. If a mountain lion is stalking outside your home and looks hungry, the best thing to do is not go outside and act like a nice juicy meal. No, you stay away, and try to think of how to get it to leave. This makes sense. But somehow when those lions turn into chemicals (like BPA) the U.S. seems not to apply the same rules. The book, Exposed - The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products: What's at Stake for American Power, by Mark Schapiro highlights the growing gap between U.S. policy regarding chemical safety and that of the rest of the world. It gives a 'behind the scenes' look into how the U.S. has lost the edge in environmental policy, and illustrates clearly how this lack of governmental leadership will negatively impact our economy as well as our personal safety.
The book is a wake-up call. It can be down right horrifying what we buy everyday, give our babies, or use in our morning coffee. The book gives a healthy dose of fear - as well as examples of how E.U. policy effectively uses the precautionary principle to not only protect its citizens, but also gain a market edge. The book however does not entertain specific solutions to specific problems (guess we will just have to read more TH stories like John's post). Instead it is a look at the policy of governments and international organizations, and the rapidly changing world in which we live. It is worth the read, just don't read it late at night- it might keep you up.
Cosmetics, computers, cell phones—these are the accoutrements of modern American life. As it turns out, many of these items are also laden with chemicals potentially so toxic that several countries around the world, notably in the European Union, have taken regulatory steps to ban them. In this smart and timely new book, Mark Schapiro, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, examines the widening gap between American and EU chemical and environmental regulation, cogently arguing that although the United States used to be a leader in environmental protection, the power has shifted across the Atlantic.
Plastic-softening phthalates, pesticides, and potentially carcinogenic ingredients in cosmetics are just some of the chemicals that have found themselves regulated by the international community in recent years. The good news is that when it comes to some chemicals (like those found in electronics), Americans are frequently benefiting blindly as products re-engineered to comply with the E.U.'s higher standards find their way onto the shelves of American stores. The bad news is that in many other cases (like cosmetics), companies are operating with a double standard and selling Americans potentially toxic products from which their European peers are shielded.
At the heart of the separation between the U.S. and the E.U. is a different understanding of risk. While the American approach dictates that a chemical is safe unless conclusively proven dangerous, the E.U.'s approach is modeled on the precautionary principle, whereby a product is kept off the market if its potential to harm outweighs its perceived benefit.
Consider the Basel Convention, which prohibits developed countries from exporting hazardous waste to developing countries; by 2006, the convention had been ratified by 166 nations, the U.S. not among them. The E.U., Japan, Norway, Argentina, and Mexico have all issued bans against certain phthalates (thought to result in the "feminization of infant boys") from infant toys; again, the U.S. is one of the only developed nations to lack government limits. Further, there are possible economic consequences: refusing to sign the Kyoto accord is shifting business opportunities from U.S. to European innovators. Strikingly, states, including California, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York, have recently attempted to step into this regulatory gap and craft their own legislation.
"Power has shifted," Schapiro concludes. "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." Either way, the United States is being left behind and Exposed makes a persuasive and informed case that the only solution is to raise the national bar when it comes to environmental regulation.
A VICTORY for consumers and the free market. That was how the European Commission presented this week's ruling by European judges in favour of its multi-million euro fine on Microsoft for bullying competitors. American observers had qualms. Would a French company have been pursued with such vigour? Explain again why a squabble among American high-technology firms ends up being decided in Brussels and Luxembourg (where Euro-judges sit)? One congressman muttered about sneaky protectionism and "zealous European Commission regulators". It certainly seemed zealous of the competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, to say that a "significant drop"—in the software giant's market share was "what we'd like to see".
More broadly, the ruling confirms that Brussels is becoming the world's regulatory capital. The European Union's drive to set standards has many causes—and a protectionist impulse within some governments (eg, France's) may be one. But though the EU is a big market, with almost half a billion consumers, neither size, nor zeal, nor sneaky protectionism explains why it is usurping America's role as a source of global standards. A better answer lies in transatlantic philosophical differences.
The American model turns on cost-benefit analysis, with regulators weighing the effects of new rules on jobs and growth, as well as testing the significance of any risks. Companies enjoy a presumption of innocence for their products: should this prove mistaken, punishment is provided by the market (and a barrage of lawsuits). The European model rests more on the "precautionary principle", which underpins most environmental and health directives. This calls for pre-emptive action if scientists spot a credible hazard, even before the level of risk can be measured. Such a principle sparks many transatlantic disputes: over genetically modified organisms or climate change, for example.
In Europe corporate innocence is not assumed. Indeed, a vast slab of EU laws evaluating the safety of tens of thousands of chemicals, known as REACH, reverses the burden of proof, asking industry to demonstrate that substances are harmless. Some Eurocrats suggest that the philosophical gap reflects the American constitutional tradition that everything is allowed unless it is forbidden, against the Napoleonic tradition codifying what the state allows and banning everything else.
Yet the more proscriptive European vision may better suit consumer and industry demands for certainty. If you manufacture globally, it is simpler to be bound by the toughest regulatory system in your supply chain. Self-regulation is also a harder sell when it comes to global trade, which involves trusting a long line of unknown participants from far-flung places (talk to parents who buy Chinese-made toys).
A gripping new book by an American, Mark Schapiro, captures the change. When he began his research, he found firms resisting the notion that the American market would follow EU standards for items like cosmetics, insisting that their American products were already safe. But as the book neared completion, firm after firm gave in and began applying EU standards worldwide, as third countries copied European rules on things like suspected carcinogens in lipstick. Even China is leaning to the European approach, one Procter & Gamble executive tells Mr Schapiro, adding wistfully: "And that's a pretty big country."
The book records similar American reactions to the spread of EU directives insisting that cars must be recycled, or banning toxins such as lead and mercury from electrical gadgets. Obey EU rules or watch your markets "evaporating", a computer industry lobbyist tells Mr Schapiro. "We've been hit by a tsunami," says a big wheel from General Motors. American multinationals that spend money adjusting to European rules may lose their taste for lighter domestic regulations that may serve only to offer a competitive advantage to rivals that do not export. Mr Schapiro is a campaigner for tougher regulation of American business. Yet you do not have to share his taste for banning chemicals to agree with his prediction that American industry will want stricter standards to create a level playing-field at home.
One American official says flatly that the EU is "winning" the regulatory race, adding: "And there is a sense that that is their precise intent." He cites a speech by the trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, claiming that the export of "our rules and standards around the world" was one source of European power. Noting that EU regulations are often written with the help of European incumbents, the official also claims that precaution can cloak "plain old-fashioned protectionism in disguise".
Europe had no idea the rest of the world was going to copy its standards, retorts a Eurocrat sweetly. "It's a very pleasant side-effect, but we set out to create the legislation we thought that Europe needed." At all events, America's strategy has changed. Frontal attempts to block new EU regulations are giving way to efforts to persuade Brussels to adopt a more American approach to cost-benefit analysis. That would placate students of rigour, who accuse some European governments of ignoring scientific data and pandering to consumer panic (as shown by European campaigns against "Frankenstein foods").
But rigour can quickly look like rigidity when it involves resisting competition. There is a genuine competition to set global regulatory standards, as Europe and America have discovered. There are also rising protectionist pressures. Perhaps zealous EU regulators may be what jumpy consumers need if they are to keep faith with free trade and globalisation. Viewed in such a light, even Microsoft's champions might hope that this week's verdict will help global competition in future.