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Bob Moon: A new law may force American companies to make safer chemicals. But the change, if it comes, isn’t because of any crackdown by the U.S. government. Chemical companies that sell to the European market are rushing to meet a deadline this weekend. That’s when they have to pre-register under a sweeping new law called REACH. It stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. As Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, this is a case where globalization might force American companies to clean up their act here at home.
Sarah Gardner: The idea behind REACH is to force chemical companies to prove their products are safe. Thirty thousand different chemicals are in products used in Europe. Over the next decade, this law will require their makers to fork over detailed data about those chemicals and their toxicity. Richard Dennison at the Environmental Defense Fund says for years European regulators had to prove a chemical unsafe in order to ban it.
Richard Dennison: This is unlike the way we regulate pesticides and drugs, for example, where the burden of proof is squarely on the industry. And what REACH would do is to extend that same type of system to chemicals used in everyday consumer products and in industry itself.
And that means American exporters will have to reveal product and safety data they’ve long resisted giving their own government, says Mark Schapiro, author of “Exposed.”
Mark Schapiro: I think they’ve resisted doing it because they’ve taken an approach of, trust us, we know what we’re doing and we can make the determination as to what is and what is not safe.
Environmental health activists have listed over 200 chemicals they want regulated. It includes substances like phthalates, which are widely used in plastics but are linked to birth defects, and formaldehyde, often found in plywood but linked to cancer. Some retailers are beginning to shy away from suspect chemicals for fear of liability. Multinationals like DuPont and Dow are already experimenting with less toxic alternatives. Still, Walter Van het Hof at Dow Chemical warns.
Walter Van het Hof: Sometimes it is that the alternatives are not available yet or that they don’t work as well as the existing substances.
Other, smaller companies may choose to opt out of the European market entirely since the cost of compliance could undermine their profits. Joe Acker heads a trade group representing 300 mostly smaller chemical makers.
Joe Acker: I’ve had at least a dozen companies come up to me and say that they were not going to register.
Author Mark Schapiro says some companies may end up pulling products from Europe that they’ll continue selling here. That’s partly why critics are urging Congress to strengthen U.S. chemical regulations.
Schapiro: If the United States does not keep up with what the European Union is doing now, what’s going to happen is we are going to become the dumping ground for products that are banned in Europe.
Schapiro says that’s already the case with come products, including plywood containing formaldehyde. But changes may be afoot. On Tuesday the EPA announced five public hearings to investigate formaldehyde emissions from pressed-wood products that are currently allowed.
I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.
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