Tuesday, July 26, 2011

EXPOSED: Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products

Third in the series of book reviews by my Urban Environmental Policy students at UMKC, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products" is reviewed here by Wesley Fahsenfeld.  This book is not what you'd think.  It's more of an expose on the international politics of safe chemistry rather than an expose about what's in all your household products.  If you're looking for politics, read on.  If you want to read about toxins in your household products, click here and here instead.   

The book that I chose to review is titled, “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday products and What’s at Stake for American Power”, by Mark Shapiro.  This book is essentially a ‘wake up call’ for US consumers regarding the dramatic shift that has taken place in the legislation and regulation of toxic chemicals in consumer products.  Traditionally, as in the 1960’s-1980’s, the US has been the leader in global environmental standards, however, today this power has shifted drastically towards the new and improved European Union.  Shapiro provides a contrasting comparison between EU standards and the US’s standards regarding chemicals found in everyday consumer products in relation to greater environmental policy.  Shapiro makes the case that US is falling far behind in regulating toxic chemicals in consumer products, and we as consumers will face the consequences.  Building upon this risk, Shapiro shows how not only does this shift in environmental leadership put our citizens at risk, it also will undermine the US’s ability to remain on top of the commercialized global economy. 


The EU’s rising power is known as “soft power.”  This refers to Europe’s newfound collective influence that is derived from its large market and aspiring characteristics of moral leadership.

The EU is now the largest and most influential marketplace in the world and its combined economic output from its membership countries now outpaces that of the US.

The EU follows a close application of the Precautionary Principle, and the US seeks for firm evidence before legislating certain ingredients out of consumer products.

The EU has removed all potential toxins (CMR’s: carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins) from cosmetic products, whereas the US has not done so. 

The EU removed all Phthalates from toy products in 1999 because of research that indicated a potential for harming the development of the hormonal and sexual development process of young boys.  The US has chosen not to eliminate these chemicals because research has not proven a direct connection to developmental problems in young children.

The differences in the approaches to environmental regulation puts EU manufacturers in a better position to service the global marketplace as compared to US manufacturers.

The US is now officially following the EU on environmental regulation.  A perfect example of this is the POPS treaty (Persistent Organic Pollutants; ex; DDT) in which the US followed the EU and many other developing countries to ratify the treaty. 

The US needs stricter government intervention in order to keep pace with the EU.  Even after George W. Bush signed the POPS treaty the justice department immediately suspended the legislation because it violated the separation of powers act of the constitution.

China, the new leader in global manufacturing is following the EU on environmental legislation not the US.

China has chosen to mirror their chemical review laws based off of the EU’s legislation known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), and not the US’s outdated version known as TSCA (Toxic Substances Control ACT of 1976). 

The consequence of the US’s lost leadership role on environmental regulation puts the US economy at the mercy of legislation that it has no role in determining.

Overall I think that this book is valuable because it shows how the global environmental leadership position of the US has drastically changed and is now spearheaded by the EU.  What makes this interesting for readers is that Shapiro uses examples from all over the consumer products industries to show which chemicals are regulated out of products in the EU and not the US.  Shapiro does a good job of showing how the US is no longer leading environmental regulations while simultaneously praising the EU for their efforts.  What this book fails to mention is the critically important differences that the two governing bodies possess.  Shapiro routinely compares the EU against the US as if they are “apples to apples” comparables.  I would contend that they are not. 

One example of this that sticks out to me is on pages 70-71.  Here Shapiro uses the example of the POPS treaty to show how the US has lost touch with EU on environmental leadership.  After President Bush signed the treaty in 2001, Shapiro says, “Assistant Attorney General William Moschella issued an opinion that ratifying the POPS would create an international process for restricting chemicals, to which the United States would be bound, compelling action by the executive branch (Via the EPA) and by congress (via the legal changes required by congress to keep the United States in compliance) that would violate the separation of powers clause of the Constitution” (69).  This is an example among many where the differences in the governing bodies of the EU and the US are far different.  The US is far less centrally controlled, by design, and the EU is a political union that by its existence has been formed by severing nations giving up independent power to a central body that creates rules and regulations that apply to 27 + member nations.  The fact that US legally cannot sign treaty that would create a process where further chemicals or additives could later be restricted without congressional approval is contrary to the governing process for which the United States was designed.  This should not be considered a black eye, but only a stark difference for which our country goes about regulation versus the EU. 

This example is a well supported theme throughout the book and while it does point to strict differences, the differences are in the design of the government and not necessarily a lack of desire to improve and protect our environment.  In Shapiro’s favor, it is clear that he sides with a European approach where the Precautionary Principle is strictly adhered to.  In this circumstance, Shapiro is correct to conclude that the US is lagging behind based off of the information that he presented in the book.  The US is more hesitant to restrict chemicals because of their toxicity at certain levels.  In the eye’s of the US, just because one chemical can be dangerous at higher levels does not mean it is dangerous in minute levels.  This difference is evident in an analogy presented by a representative from Proctor and Gamble that Shapiro shares on P. 30, “’imagine, he said, ‘you encounter a tiger in the wild, and then you encounter another tiger behind its protective enclosure in a zoo.’  The wild tiger, he said, ‘is inherently dangerous.’  Get close enough, and it can kill you.’  Put that tiger behind bars in a zoo, however, and that tiger ‘is not dangerous at all.’…’it’s the same thing in [cosmetic] products,’ he said, ‘there may be inherent toxicity to a particular chemical, but if you use it under certain conditions the exposure is minimal and they present no risk.’  This distinction lies at the core of the disagreement between the two continents in determining chemical safety.” 30).  When Shaprio points to these distinctions between the US and EU he does a poor job of describing why the EU’s approach is better than the US’s.  He simply uses these examples to show that the US is not as quick to regulate out chemicals, and because of that, he determines that the US is failing in environmental regulation.  I wish he would provide more evidence as to why the EU’s approach is better suited than the US’s.

Another area that Shapiro could have done a better job supporting, is when he claims that the US’ less strict regulations put companies and manufacturers at a disability to serve the European markets.  Shapiro claims that because the US’ regulations do not include chemicals that are banned in the EU, US manufacturers can’t serve the EU’s vast marketplace.  This assumption is short sighted and assumes that just because US manufacturers don’t have to produce a product in a certain way doesn’t mean that they will.  US manufacturers who wish to serve the EU market can produce to the EU standards just the same. 

In the end, Shapiro does a good job of showing how the leadership position of the US has dissolved and paved the way for the EU to spearhead global environmental regulation.  I think that there are a few areas that Shapiro could have done a better job but overall his narrative is well supported.  I think that the main thing that I take away from this book, is not a fear of the toxicity of products that I can buy in US, but rather the risk that is inherent to the US’ lack of leadership on environmental regulation and how it can ultimately subject our nation to a variety of initiatives that we have no role in developing.  This essentially equates a lack of leadership on environmental standards to a loss of control in the global marketplace which is a threat worth mitigating in my opinion. 

  • The comparison between the US and EU is an extremely important aspect of this book and Shapiro’s narrative.  Without an introduction, Shapiro uses the first chapter, titled “Soft Power, Hard Edge,” to introduce the position that the EU has on the global environmental policy front.  It is important to understand this first paragraph’s title to get a feel for the way the Shapiro views the EU in his comparisons to the US:

    • “Political Scientists call Europe’s form of influence “soft power,” exerted not through military might but through the lure of its vast market and from less tangible qualities of moral leadership.  But there’s a hard edge the EU’s soft power.  That edge was discovered with a jolt by Microsoft, which was fined close to a billion dollars for violating European principles of fair competition in its marketing of computer software; by General Electric, which had its proposed merger with Honeywell blocked because of similar anti-competitiveness concerns; and by Philip Morris, which agreed to a one billion dollar fine to settle allegations of tobacco smuggling and evading taxes.  These were warning shots, showing that changing European standards of competition and corporate fraud were no longer a matter of quaint differences of perspective, but had the teeth of enforcement behind them.  Now some of those teeth are being put behind environmental protection.” (16).

  • It is important to know the significance of the EU in the global economy. It is also helpful to understand the implications of the European marketplace for US companies participating in the global economy:

    • “Forty to sixty percent of Procter & Gamble’s $56 billion in yearly sales is to overseas markets, according to Long, the largest of which is Europe.  The major cosmetic companies—Revlon, Estee Lauder, and other brand-name enterprises—also rely on the European and other overseas markets for a significant portion of their yearly sales.  For the cosmetics industry overall, much of their product line is not subject to U.S. regulations at all.” (31).

  • This is a good example from the book where Shapiro uses the POPS treaty and countries in which have ratified the treaty to show how the US is not only behind the EU but also other countries that were typically seen to be far behind the US.  In this example, Mexico proposed to add a chemical, Lindane, to the banned chemicals list in the POPS treaty:

    • “Mexico’s move on lindane revealed how dramatically the global politics around chemicals have changed.  When Weir and I wrote our book, we described Mexico as one of the primary markets for pesticides like chlordane, aldrin, dieldrin, and indeed, lindane.  Today, it is the United States that is the market for a chemical that is banned in Mexico.  The ironies around lindane abound, and offer a snapshot into how profoundly the United States has lost its former position of environmental leadership.” (75)

  • Something that is also important to know is a brief discussion by Shapiro regarding chemicals and their effect on the human body.  This is important in the discussion between the EU’s precautionary approach versus the US ‘smoking gun,’ or evidence based approach:

    • “The fears now, of scientists like Caserta and others, are the effects that may be seen over time from extremely low doses, measured in parts per million or even parts per billion.  This signifies a dramatic shift in the science of toxicology, which has traditionally assessed chemical risk on the basis of volume: the higher the quantity of potentially dangerous chemical, the higher the risk.  Recent evidence suggests an unexpected twist in this assessment: some chemicals may have an effect only at low doses, while higher doses may trigger receptors to shut down, or trigger an immune reaction that is not triggered by the far more common low-dose exposures.” (130)

  • In Shapiro’s discussion on the implications of the US’s lack of leadership, this is a good example that shows the power of the global economy and how the US is potentially missing out:

    • “While the United States retreats, the EU’s tougher approach to environmental protection is rippling into the supply chains of the global economy.  ‘The ground is changing,’ commented Daryl Ditz of the Center for International Environmental Law, which works globally on behalf of environmental reform.  ‘It’s happening through all these micro-decisions made by companies in countries most American’s don’t pay attention to.’  At the same time, new axis of power are emerging, independent of any of the superpowers.  As I researched this book, a major trade deal was struck between India, Brazil, and South Africa that sent billions of dollars in commerce into motion across the hemispheres that detours the EU, U.S., and China.” (177).

Shapiro, Mark, “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Who’s at Risk and What’s at Stake for American Power,” Chelsea Green, 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment