Clyde Prestowitz on Minnesota Public Radio: Marketplace (1/13/05)
Analysis: European Commission is turning out new health and safety rules, some which will affect US businesses
(c) Copyright 2005, Minnesota Public Radio. All Rights Reserved.
DAVID BROWN, anchor: Americans are proud of their independence. Yet in
at least one respect, the US may be falling to foreign domination. The
European Commission is turning out a raft of new health and safety
rules, and some of them will wind up affecting US businesses, whether
Americans like it or not. Over the next few weeks, we're going to be
reporting on these changes in a series prepared in collaboration with
the Center for Investigative Reporting. Our series is called Brussels
Clout, and we begin with a look at a major change in how the chemical
industry might be regulated. MARKETPLACE's European bureau chief
Stephen Beard takes us into a typical home in London.
STEPHEN BEARD reporting:
Mary Taylor is looking for dangerous chemicals in her kitchen cupboard.
Ms. MARY TAYLOR (Friends of the Earth): Lots of fairly typical household cleaners in here.
BEARD: Dish-washing liquid, soap powder, stain remover, oven
cleaner--every bottle and packet promises sparkling results, but Mary
has no idea exactly what they contain or really how safe they are.
Ms. TAYLOR: There's probably hundreds of chemicals in here as well.
It's quite a nasty old mix. And we can't even really tell exactly
what's in here, I'm afraid to say.
BEARD: Consumers are now exposed to thousands of chemicals in cleaning
products, clothing and in children's toys, in cell phones and computers
and many other manufactured goods. In many cases, these chemicals have
not been properly tested, says Mary Taylor, who's chemical safety
campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
Ms. TAYLOR: Certain types of cancer are increasing, certain types of
reproductive defects are increasing, for example, birth defects as
well, and there are growing suspicions that some of these chemicals are
to blame. But on the whole, we don't know which ones exactly, and we
need to get that basic information.
BEARD: Phthalates, which are used to soften plastics in food wrapping
and even children's toys, are called gender benders because they're
thought to disrupt sexual development. Friends of the Earth fears that
many other such chemicals could be doing us harm. (
Excerpt from rap song)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...learn about chemical safety. Chemical safety.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) It's important to learn.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Chemical safety.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) It's a dire concern.
BEARD: This rap, produced by the World Health Organization, underlines
the growing anxiety. The EU shares that concern and is determined to
plug what it says is a gaping hole in its chemical safety laws, which
it inherited from America. In 1979, the US passed a law which only
required the testing of new chemicals. The Europeans followed suit, but
that has left the 80 percent of chemicals still in use on both
continents untested, says Belgian member of the European Parliament
Mr. BART STAES (European Parliament): More than 100,000 chemical
substances exist, of which no real information is distributed on
influence those products have on health, on environments.
BEARD: The EU's solution, which has already been 10 years in the
making, is a regulation called REACH: Registration, Evaluation and
Authorization of Chemicals. It will require manufacturers to test at
their own expense tens of thousands of substances, and that's not just
European manufacturers. American companies export $20 billion worth of
chemicals to the EU every year. If those exports don't comply, they'll
Mr. STAES: If you vote a regulation where you try to protect public
health, I think you should involve not only the products produced in
Europe but as well in other parts of the world, including the United
Unidentified Man #2: This is called a reactor. It's completely lined
with glass. You can see all the walls and stirrers, everything--the
baffles, everything is covered with glass.
BEARD: Chemical manufacturers like this one in the English Midlands are
very nervous about REACH. They agree that safety testing must be
extended, but they argue it's insane to test tens of thousands of
chemicals, including, for example, the ingredients that go into salt
and vinegar. Alistair Steel, who runs Rhodia UK, is highly critical of
the planned regulation.
Mr. ALISTAIR STEEL (Rhodia UK): It is quite a headache. In basic terms,
it means that we would have to carry out a lot of new testing on over
100 products, and that would involve a cost of some tens of millions of
BEARD: Even the European Commission now estimates that the total cost
of implementing REACH admittedly, spread out over 15 years, could be as
high as $6 1/2 billion.
Mr. STEEL: I'm sure it was launched with the very best of intentions,
but I think they totally misunderstood the enormity of the job that was
ahead of them.
BROWN: European chemical manufacturers are terrified of losing out to
foreign rivals. They're demanding that all foreign goods imported into
the EU which contain any chemicals at all, like cars and computers, for
example, should also be subject to the regulation. That could affect
$400 billion worth of American exports, reason enough for the US to be
following this closely. Clyde Prestowitz , who was an official in the
Mr. CLYDE PRESTOWITZ (Former Reagan Official): Americans are in for a
rude shock, believe me. The United States is not going to dictate
standards anymore. Economically, Europe stands toe to toe with the US.
We can't dictate to them, we need to negotiate with them and that's
just the way it's going to be.
BEARD: There's likely to be more than a year of wrangling before REACH
becomes law. A US lobbying campaign has been quietly under way in
Brussels for months. It's likely to grow more vociferous. From the
European desk in London, this is Stephen Beard for MARKETPLACE