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US Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products

StoryFebruary 24, 2009
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We speak to award-winning investigative journalist Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. Schapiro writes, “The European-led revolution in chemical regulation requires that thousands of chemicals finally be assessed for their potentially toxic effects on human beings and signals the end of American industry’s ability to withhold critical data from the public.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Developing a “green economy” has been one of President Obama’s central promises while on the campaign trail and since taking office. Well, my next guest believes that tightening environmental and consumer safety regulations on the American chemical and manufacturing industry is not only necessary for the health of the environment, but is good for the economy.

Do you know what’s in the mascara you wear or the toys your kids play with? Has the American chemical industry blocked regulation of products that may be linked to cancer, infertility, neurological and hormonal disorders? Do these lax environmental standards mean US companies are losing out on one of the world’s most affluent markets: Europe?

Europe’s stringent regulations require companies seeking access to their lucrative markets to eliminate these toxic substances and manufacture safer and greener electronics, automobiles, toys and cosmetics.

Award-winning investigative journalist Mark Schapiro is the author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, just out in paperback. He writes, “The European-led revolution in chemical regulation requires that thousands of chemicals finally be assessed for their potentially toxic effects on human beings and signals the end of American industry’s ability to withhold critical data from the public.” Mark Schapiro is the editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, joining us here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARK SCHAPIRO: Thank you. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about makeup. When a woman puts on mascara or lipstick or powder — I mean, someone’s tested it, haven’t they?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Well, I’d like to think so, since I just had a little bit put on myself backstage there. Unfortunately, this is an illusion that a lot of Americans have, basically, that somebody out there in the government is assessing the safety of the ingredients in the cosmetics that they put on their body. And I think this strikes really at this kind of — there’s a deep mythology I think people have here in this country that the government is looking out for their health and safety, when it comes to chemicals. And what I talk about in the book is really how that is unfortunately not the case and what the consequences are for our health, but also for our economic and political status in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to the issue of the economy and the fact that you say that deregulation is actually bad for business. But let’s talk about health for a minute. Talk about how the FDA got started and why cosmetics aren’t being regulated by the FDA.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yes. Well, good question. So we’re back in the 1930s, coming out of that hole, you know, there in Depression era. This is the Roosevelt era. And the Food and Drug Administration was created at that time to monitor the types of food and the types of drugs that Americans were taking. Well, at that time, there was a proposal to include cosmetics under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. That effort was derailed by the cosmetics industry, which was a little more nascent than it is now but succeeded in essentially exempting the cosmetics industry from regulation by the FDA.

The only thing the FDA really looks at now is hair dyes. But anything else, whether it’s your nail polish, eye shadow, actually shampoo, essentially personal care products, is not regulated by the FDA. The FDA doesn’t even have the power to regulate it. And numerous times in the Senate over the last fifty years, there have been efforts to actually expand the purview of the FDA, and it’s been repeatedly beaten back by the cosmetics industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Lipstick, lead in lipstick — is this an issue today?

MARK SCHAPIRO: This, you know, — I mean, it’s actually fascinating. There’s an environmental group, Health Care Without Harm, which demanded from the FDA its data about lead in lipstick. And the response that it got repeatedly was, you know, “We’re looking into it, we’re looking into it, we’re looking into it,” and basically, in the end, wouldn’t provide the data about lead in lipstick. So the answer as to whether it’s still there is yes, and — which is kind of extraordinary when you think of what lead does. I remember being a kid. You’re not supposed to chew a lead pencil, because it’s like going to affect your brain.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. And here, people who wear lipstick are licking it all day.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And then they’re reapplying it.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And then they’re licking it again.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yes, yes. That is what people do with lipstick. And they put, you know — I mean, the skin is — one of the interesting things, medically speaking, is actually — it was fascinating for me to learn that the skin is actually an organ. The skin is an organ. It’s a living organ. It’s not just a covering of the human body; it’s actually a living organ. So whatever you put on the skin ultimately makes its way into the body.

And so, when you look at cosmetics — and there are array of ways we get exposed to toxic chemicals, but when you look at cosmetics, you have an array of substances that actually — some of which mimic estrogen, for example, the female sexual hormone, and which is — many scientists have a lot of concern about that idea.

And so, what we’ve discovered, and the reason — the reason I can — I know some of this information and the reason I can even tell you about it and obviously the reason I wrote about it in the book, or where I got that information, is, one, you have scientists who have been studying it in America, but, two, you have this whole other body in the European Union which has actually decided to ban a whole array of these substances, things that cause cancer, mutation of human genes, reproductive damage. So the reason I even know what kind of material is in cosmetics is not because the FDA has told us; it’s actually because the European Union has taken the action to remove that stuff, and they have a list.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the stuff?

MARK SCHAPIRO: The stuff is an array of ingredients that cause — that are determined to cause cancer, that are determined to cause reproductive damage, and that are determined to cause mutation of human genes. They’re called CMRs.

So the European Union actually looked at cosmetics, determined what kind of ingredients are being used, which of them cause — are potential contributors to — it’s important to remember that when I say “caused” because people need to understand how, like, chemicals work. It’s complicated. It’s not like you put lipstick on, and you’re going to get sick. That is not how it works. But we’re talking about an accumulation over life, over the course of your life, over years and years, multiple times repeated, very, very minute amounts over the course of many years. And that’s where the concern lies in many of these substances.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about a product you don’t hear very much about in this country, you’re not going to see on the ingredient list on cosmetics or other things, and that is phthalates.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Oh, boy. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Phthalates, the more I found out about phthalates, the more I couldn’t believe people — we were contending with these things on a regular basis.

AMY GOODMAN: And “phthalates” starts with a “p.”

MARK SCHAPIRO: Right, “phthalates” starts with a “p.” It’s a very unusual spelling, a lot of consonants. But phthalates are basically a plastic additive that makes plastic soft. And so, I have on the cover of the book a little rubber ducky. The rubber duck is traditionally made soft with phthalates. Kids play with these things, as they do with many other toys. And what’s interesting about that is that studies have been done for years now — ten, fifteen years — suggesting that the phthalates, which soften plastic, contribute to the reduction of testosterone in young male infants and are very potent, you know, endocrine disruptors, in an early stage in life, in particular. And these are used in a whole array of things, from children’s toys — kids suck on them. Kids play them. You know, they’re soft, so they play with them and squeeze them and throw them at their mothers and all that and their fathers. And they’re also in our shower curtains, dashboards in automobiles, you have phthalates.

So, what I talk about here and what’s interesting is about — starting about ten years ago, the European Union began removing phthalates from the children toys. Why? Because children suck on these things, and when they suck on these things, their levels of phthalates are elevated, and they — and there could be a potential contribution to disrupting a very vulnerable endocrine system. Back and forth, back and forth, there’s been massive lobbying by the American chemical industry to try to prevent the Europeans from moving forward. They did move forward, and we, finally, in America, ten years later, have actually banned — about six months ago, the US Congress finally banned phthalates in the United States in certain children’s toys, number one, ten years after the European Union did, which means the European companies got a big advance on finding alternatives, and two, they’re still selling out the inventory, so they’re permitted to sell the inventory in America until it runs out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mean, for example, China makes these rubber toys —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- not only China; US companies, I presume, too. They can’t go to the United States, but they — they can’t go to European countries, but they come to the United States —-

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yes, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- because European countries said no.


AMY GOODMAN: So, we get the toxic toys.

MARK SCHAPIRO: We get the toxic toys. We get toxic electronics. We get the toxic material that other countries around the world are protected from. And that is what I found most, you know, alarming in writing the book, because to find out that the United States has become the dumping ground — we used to be the country that banned a product and dumped it overseas somewhere in the developing world somewhere. And now, we, after, you know, a decade of retreat from environmental ideas, are the country that is the dumped-upon country. And you can see, time after time after time, with electronics, with toys, with the cosmetics —-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, electronics?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Electronics -— there was a law passed by the European Union saying, let’s remove mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, very potent neurological toxins, from electronics, because they leak into the water supply when they decay and the air and the soil.

And so, the large multinational companies largely adapted to the European laws, which is very interesting, because, one, we’re talking about the Intels and Apples and etc., etc., of the world. That made the EPA completely irrelevant. EPA has basically dug itself into a hole of becoming totally irrelevant to the decisions of major corporations, which are aligning themselves increasingly with the European standards.

However, if you’re a small operator in China or elsewhere in the spokes of the global economy, and you want to sell stuff to — you only care about the American market, the American and the African and Latin America market, you can manufacture goods that you could never sell in Europe. And that’s what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: You attended a number of meetings in Silicon Valley. Explain what you watched unfold there, Mark Schapiro.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, what we’re talking about here is an enormous global shift in power. We are really talking about the notion that Americans think that we sort of set the tune, whether it’s environment, whether it’s economic policy, financial policy. There’s still an idea that we are the ones setting the tune, and everybody follows. And the power shift that I write about here and that I think is fascinating is the emergence of the European Union as an enormous economic and political force in the world.

So I watched — in Silicon Valley, for example, I sat in on these meetings where consultants came in from the European Union to explain to American engineers the changes that were being required in Europe to enable them to sell their products in Europe. These are major — these are the major name-brand electronic firms. And I watched them explain that, you know, starting in six months — starting in six months, you’ve got to remove the lead, the mercury, the cadmium and chromium and synthetic flame retardants from your electronic products. And you could see — you could see the world changing in front of their faces. These are guys who design these things. They made all these great things we have in our pockets, in your homes and on your desk here. And suddenly, this new entity from far off in Brussels, in this case, the head of the EU, was dictating what was going to be inside them. It was a transformative moment, I think, and actually quite revealing of this kind of shifting global dynamic that we’re in.

AMY GOODMAN: So you now have lobbyists not only going to Washington; they’re going to Brussels.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, they’re on express flights to Brussels, K Street.

AMY GOODMAN: To do what?

MARK SCHAPIRO: To lobby, to lobby. K Street basically — K Street, of course, the center of American lobbying in Washington. When the Europeans began trying to do these things, trying to change the production system or trying to protect people from some of the dangers of what’s in these products, the US chemical industry manufacturers, they began flooding Brussels with lobbyists. And what’s happened — and I’ve walked around the European Parliament, the European Commission, which is essentially the Congress and White House of the European Union, quaintly put, are now surrounded by the Burson-Marstellers, the Hill & Knowlton companies. All the lobbying firms that we’ve become so familiar with in America moved wholesale to Brussels and have launched essentially a transatlantic, very aggressive lobbying campaign. It’s been fascinating. If you need a portrait at all of the changed dynamic in the world, you can see where the action has moved.

Now, one of the reasons the action moved there is because over the last eight years the only threat really coming to major corporate interests, the only major threat, was coming from Brussels. Now we’re in a somewhat different dynamic, of course. Somewhat. I mean, we’ll see what happens. It’s still panning itself out. But those firms have not left. They are there. And if you go to the American — the American Chamber of Commerce has a huge presence in Brussels. And what they’ve tried to do is actually lobby — what’s interesting is you can’t lobby in the same way in Europe that you can here. I mean, you don’t have campaign contributions, so you can’t do those whole things. And so, the lobbying has a very different form. And I talked to actually some of the lobbyists, and they were kind of thrown off, because you’ve got different languages, the lobbying is very different, the way you exert influence is very different. And to a great extent, a good deal of the American lobbying didn’t work and has been causing backfires.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we want to come back to Mark Schapiro. His book is called Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. I want to ask you about baby bottles. I want to ask you about bioengineered foods. That’s coming up after break. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Watch Over Me” — that’s the Newport Jazz All Stars from 1966. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. And we’re more than forty years later, and the question is, who is watching over you? And do you need that when it comes to the products you consume or that you use?

Our guest is Mark Schapiro. His book is called Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. The issue of regulation is now being presented as, “Well, that’s bad for business. And especially in these economically perilous times, people have to let up.” Your response to that, Mark Schapiro?

MARK SCHAPIRO: I think that that is a line that has been repeated so many times that it’s almost tiresome to hear. However, people have begun believing that there’s something deep in the American psyche that says that it’s we, individuals, in opposition to the government, and there’s a very, I think, profound American sense that that argument has plugged into over the last two decades.

And so, what I actually wanted to do in doing the book, really, was actually to see, alright, what happens when the government does get a little more intrusive into the marketplace? What happens when they start regulating? And what I found in Europe was that when the government said — came in and said, “Wait a minute, you can’t use these substances in these products. We want you to do things otherwise. We want you to find less toxic alternatives,” over and over again I found that the industries didn’t shrink, they didn’t lose market share. In fact, there were a lot of new jobs created. Many new markets, particularly, for example, in international trade, if you look at the emerging economies, with the new middle class coming up in Brazil and South Africa and Korea and other countries, that are now in play sort of between Europe and America, which direction they’re going to go, are increasingly, the trade figures are showing, moving in the European direction when it comes to many of these products. And so, the interesting thing was actually to see the economic effects, because what happened in every one of the industries that I looked at here — and it’s even a broader portrait — there have been not the economic collapse that we keep hearing about, but in fact the opposite.

And so, I really wanted to look at this dynamic and say, what happens when regulation happens? I think we’ve been operating with this ruse, and what I really enjoyed doing in the reporting was actually to see what happens. What’s unusual now is that you have an economy that’s comparable to America’s. We’ve never had that before. That’s a new phenomenon that is really just, I would say, about — that’s really just three years old or four years old, since 2005, when the EU became a consolidated, you know, really truly integrated economy. So, for the first time in history, we can actually see how these policies we’ve been discussing here in America actually work.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, staying on Europe, I want to play a clip of Stavros Dimas. He is on the European Commission for the environment. He explained how tightening environmental and consumer safety regulations benefits the economy.

    STAVROS DIMAS: The medical expenses for chemicals-related diseases will be less. Medicines will not be needed. We shall not lose working hours, and the productivity will be better. So the overall benefits of rates will by far outweigh the costs to the industry.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Alain Perroy, the Director-General of the European Chemical Industry Council. He says, in the long-term, consumer safety regulations ultimately help the chemical industry.

    ALAIN PERROY: It’s true that the image of the chemical industry is not ranking first in public opinions, because there are fears about chemicals, about the hazards. So if we can demonstrate through which that a well-documented dossier about hazard exposure and risk and a proper risk management is in place or is improved, we can indeed enhance the confidence in chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he speaks for the chemical industry.


AMY GOODMAN: Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yes, he does speak for the chemical industry. And it’s interesting, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that he has an accent, because I don’t know —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- if you would find American lobbyists for the chemical industry speaking like that.

MARK SCHAPIRO: No, you wouldn’t. And actually, what was really something is I talked to, not him personally, but somebody else in their organization in Europe, as well as the American Chemical Council, and what happened during the debates — there actually began to see a debate — I mean, I’m sorry, a division between the European and American chemical industry. They started united, and they started actually launching — they launched a joint lobbying campaign, essentially, to stop what Europe was doing. And after about a year or two, they began to separate. You could actually see it happening, as the European chemical industry, which is by no means some foreseeing, pioneering, you know, environmentalist enterprise, but they began seeing the possibility that these kind of policies could work. And the American chemical industry has just been repeatedly stuck in the status quo over and over again. There’s a very big difference even between those two industries, many of which — you know, many of those European companies are here in America.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. Do you think, as we talk about healthcare costs, that there’s more concern in Europe, because the states are paying the healthcare costs?


AMY GOODMAN: You know, single payer.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re paying for those costs.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Here, the state isn’t, so less concerned.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Well, when the debates began in Europe, one of the — you’ve identified the exact huge motivating force in Europe. The European states pay for healthcare of their citizens. So, when people, advocates and scientists and such, started arguing these cases with their governments, they made an economic argument. They said, “Look, you invest now in getting these things out of circulation, and in ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, there are going to be billions of dollars in savings.” And that’s in fact what the European Commission now estimates, that by this array of different environmental initiatives, they’re going to save up 40, 50 billion euros over the next thirty years. So it’s an enormous financial investment in the health of their citizens, and whereas in America, you know, God forbid something happens to any of us, basically we’re basically on our own. And so, one, we’re on our own financially, which is very difficult. And politically speaking, it creates a less receptive political atmosphere, because there’s not the economic incentive.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there companies that are ahead of the curve here?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah, there are companies that are ahead of the curve here. I mean, you know, there’s big changes in the market now. And I’m not going to use one name or another, because I don’t want them to offer me some sort of gig afterward. But yes, of course, there are companies in America. Obviously, we have a changing atmosphere here in America, in terms of consumers becoming more aware of these issues.

But I would say one key element of that is, yes, the market moves forward, huge market, organic this and that is growing dramatically — natural products, less toxic ingredients, more green, etc., etc. But there is a very key difference between the market moving those forces and laws. And if you don’t have a law, what you have is a market, that if people have the money and the knowledge, they can actually go seek out the products. And I’m sure people can figure out how to do that. But if you have a law, people — it makes it far more equitable, because everybody gets the same protections, whether you have the resources or the knowledge to pursue the alternatives. So I think there’s a big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: I said I’d ask you about baby bottles.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Oh, boy. Well, you know, it’s — I haven’t used one in a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Do they have phthalates in them?

MARK SCHAPIRO: I don’t believe they have phthalates.

AMY GOODMAN: Phthalates.

MARK SCHAPIRO: I don’t believe they have phthalates any longer. But I believe they do have — some of them have BPA, which is bisphenol A, which is a big issue right now, as to how safe bisphenol A — a lot of fears that it is a potent endocrine disruptor, possible carcinogen, and a huge —

AMY GOODMAN: And why are they in bottles? And can you ever find out how you can get them without that?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Well, you can actually go to a store, and if it says “no bisphenol A,” then you could probably trust it. But the point is that there is no requirement that that be disclosed to you. And that’s what we do not have here in America. We don’t have a requirement that companies tell you what’s inside their goods. So I think there actually has be kind of a change in that regard.

I mean, the reason we don’t know a lot of what’s in the goods is not some sort of accident. It’s not because it’s some incredibly complicated formula to figure out. It’s because steadily over time, their have been efforts to keep that information from the public. And I think a lot of what’s — what’s interesting now is that there are levels of disclosure required on European products that are not required on American products. We live in a global economy. So that information is going to start making its way back here to the United States. And I think it’s going to start creating some interesting tensions when people start seeing information disclosed there that’s not disclosed here.

AMY GOODMAN: What about deodorant?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Deodorant — I don’t know about deodorant. I think I don’t know the answer to deodorant, because it’s got — here’s the only thing I can tell you, is that synthetic aromas are something I would not want to immerse myself into too deeply, because the particular nature of those concoctions is — have been called into question.

AMY GOODMAN: So now, the power of the chemical industry here, the power of the European Union uniting, what that means? The history of that, of the European Union, and what you can expect to see? Perhaps Africa, too — now Qaddafi, right, heads — saying that all of African countries should come together and form that kind of bloc, like Europe.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Yeah, I mean, what’s fascinating — of course, when we talk about European Union, I think it’s a fascinating political experiment, and it’s been — because what you have is twenty-seven different countries, and from all the way in Spain, of course, to Finland, to Sweden, to Cyprus, and they’ve decided to voluntarily integrate their economic — enormous portion of their economic systems and to develop joint political structures. And they’ve got essentially a parliament, an executive arm, and they have a judicial arm that enforces the kind of accords between the different nations. So, this, as a political — they call it an unidentified political object. I mean, it’s one of the ways that they describe it to themselves in Europe. And this entity — aside from having a lot of nice wine and cathedrals in Europe, what’s interesting is that in 2005, this entity, the European Union, became essentially the world’s largest economy, so supplanted the United States as the world’s largest economy.

So this notion of coordinated activities between countries in a world in which trade — this is one of the effects, long-term effects, of globalization. You were there. You know, ten years ago, you saw the debates over globalization. And who thought this would have happened, that this assemblage of countries would actually begin to have stronger environmental protections and radiate those throughout the global economy? I don’t think people anticipated that ten years ago.

So now, what’s interesting is that other parts of the world are beginning to assemble themselves. So look at — you mentioned the African Union, which is actually beginning to see the European Union as a model for allying itself and beginning to assert its authority in the global economy. Similar thing is happening with Mercosur in our own backyard down in — I mean, in Latin America, where the Mercosur countries — I think it’s now five or six Latin American countries — have banded together in an economic alliance that has certain common policies and which is detouring the United States — not detouring, but their primary trading partner is no longer America; it actually is the European Union. So this notion of how America exerts its influence in the world through trade and through standards, which the world used to follow, is no longer the case. It’s a much more complicated and fluid —

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mark Schapiro, lawmakers pushing for a new government agency that would be responsible for food safety in the wake of the massive salmonella outbreak as a result of the Peanut Corporation of America. A bill sponsored by Connecticut Congress member Rosa DeLauro would divide the Food and Drug Administration in two, separating the agency’s drug oversight and food safety duties. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has gone further, suggesting all the government agencies responsible for food safety, including those that are part of the Agriculture Department, should combine into one. Do you see this as a positive development?

MARK SCHAPIRO: Wow, wow! Well, first of all, I think paying more attention to food safety is a pretty important thing. The USDA has just not been there on this. And actually, there’s a lot of corollaries between the way we treat food and the additives we put in food and the chemicals we put in food to the kind of chemicals that I write about, in terms of products and such like that, in terms of lack of regulation, pullback of restraints, grandfathering onto the market whole types of food treatments, and such like that, that never got the oversight that was needed.


MARK SCHAPIRO: Like, for example, the use of hormones in beef. You know, this is an enormous dispute right now. But much of the world does not allow hormones to be used in human beef.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Alright. And so, I think — but I think this is a very interesting time ahead, enormous possibilities as Obama looks at some of these issues and responds.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

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