The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products
By Vanja Petrovic
August 17, 2007
American industry would have you believe that taking potentially hazardous
and toxic chemicals out of everyday consumer products -- removing phthalates
from children's toys and cancer-causing coal tar from hair dye -- would damage
our economy and result in a loss of American jobs. In his latest book, Exposed:
The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Mark Schapiro busts this myth and
reveals the grim fact that some companies, whether American or international,
often have two production lines: one that manufactures hazard-free products for
the European Union and another that produces toxin-filled versions of the same
items for America and developing countries.
Schapiro examines how America, once a leader in environmental protection,
came to allow potentially toxic and mutagenic chemicals, banned by the EU, into
everyday products. He also looks at how the EU's economy -- almost identical to
that of America -- continued to thrive even after these chemicals were banned,
essentially "calling the bluff" of the American industry.
Schapiro, an investigative journalist for more than two decades, has built an
award-winning track record with a focus on environmental and international
affairs. His work has appeared in Harper's, the Nation, Mother Jones, and the
Atlantic Monthly. He has also been a correspondent on NOW with Bill Moyers,
Frontline/World, and Marketplace.
AlterNet spoke with Schapiro in Berkeley at the Center for Investigative
Reporting, where he is currently the editorial director.
Vanja Petrovic: Why did you choose to write this book now?
Mark Schapiro: I've been following the evolution of the European Union for
some time now, just because I spent a lot of time working in Europe. I've been
both a reporter and an editor in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe after
1989. And I spent quite a bit of time reporting in and out of the European
Union. So, I watched as this entity, called the European Union, evolved into a
functioning, powerful political and economic body.
What I think most Americans have missed is that, in the interim, this very
powerful political force has emerged within Europe. It has enforced laws from
Brussels that are applied now in 27 different countries.
Traditionally, the United States has been the single most powerful economic
force in the world -- that's what we've seen until now. Suddenly, the EU has a
bigger economy than the United States of America. The EU exports more goods to
the rest of the world than the United States of America. The EU has a higher GNP
than the United States of America.
Now, I think, we are in a historic period. There's an enormous historic shift
that's going on right now. And that shift, when historians look back on this
time period, they're going to look at this enormous tectonic shift in
international influence and international power. What they're going to see is a
kind of dramatically dwindling American influence, and that's partly a result of
the foreign policy of the current administration, and it's also partly a result
of the sheer, cold economic numbers, in which the United States is no longer the
only dominant economic force in the world. That shift has enormous implications,
and I think it's one of the biggest untold stories of the 21st century. What I
wanted to look at is what the environmental implications of that shift are.
Petrovic: What is the message behind this book?
Schapiro: The environmental battles in the United States have been kind of
repeated over 20 years, and it's the same battle over and over with different
ingredients. The environmental community says, "Take this chemical out of this
because it's dangerous," and the industry says, "One, it's not dangerous, and
two, it's not economical, and we'll fall out of business, and Americans are
going to lose their jobs." And this goes back and forth over and over again --
it's like Kabuki theater.
So, for the first time what you have is an economic power that's the
equivalent of the United States -- it's the equivalent in terms of affluence, in
terms of education, in terms of overall sophistication and overall development
-- which is saying, "No, we can actually take these particular toxic chemicals
out of these products, out of our computers, out of our pajamas, out of our
cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy."
So, essentially they're calling the bluff of the United States. They're
calling the bluff of the U.S. industry by demonstrating that taking out
substances deemed toxic can keep the economy going. The economic argument has
been taken away.
Petrovic: You talk about how some companies are making one product for the
United States, with potentially toxic chemicals, and another, without those
chemicals, for Europe. Why is there such a resistance for making the same
products for both?
Schapiro: You have two things happening: One, you have companies that have
separate production lines for Europe and America. In other instances, when it
comes to transnational companies, they are adopting one set of standards for
their products, following tighter standards from the EU.
So, for the first time, these American companies, we're talking about
electronic companies, some of the cosmetic companies -- not a whole bunch of
them, but some of them -- are actually following the rules of the EU. They're
jumping right over the heads of Washington. Part of the point of this book is to
illustrate to Americans how our own government is digging itself into a place of
irrelevance. In some instances business is getting ahead of the government, but
in other instances, there are things that are banned in Europe that are ending
up in America, and that includes things like phthalates in children's toys. And
formaldehyde, which you can't sell in Europe at certain levels, is ending up in
Twenty-five years ago, I co-authored a book called Circle of Poison, and that
book talked about the double standard that was emerging between the United
States and other countries. Here in the United States we were beginning to ban
certain toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and other chemicals. Our book was
essentially an expose about how we would ban the chemicals here, but we would
send them oversees where they weren't banned. And, suddenly, 25 years later, I'm
looking at this whole power dynamic and realizing, "My god, the United States is
now in the position that the developing world once was in relation to the United
Petrovic: In the book, you say one of the reasons that companies are
unwilling to stop producing products with potentially toxic chemicals is a fear
of liability. Why aren't these companies stopping manufacture of these
potentially toxic chemicals in their products now in order to not be sued in the
Schapiro: I think there is a concern in U.S. industry that, basically, if
they were to start removing chemicals they were using for years and finding
alternatives, it puts them in a very tricky position. They don't want to be seen
as acknowledging that those chemicals are dangerous to begin with, because once
you acknowledge that a chemical was dangerous to begin with, you are then
subject to legal action. And I don't think that's an illegitimate concern.
What happens here is that there's very little information provided to the
U.S. government. So, the EPA has extremely limited power to look at test results
or anything around chemicals. The FDA has almost no power to really oversee the
chemicals used in cosmetics. But most Americans perceive them as being present.
So, what's interesting to see is that really the regulatory bodies of the U.S.
government really have very little oversight authority on these chemical
questions. Nevertheless they do provide a path for a company to say it passed
scrutiny by this agency or that agency, when the scrutiny was really pro forma
pharma? As in pharmaceuticals?. ...
I think also that the idea that Europe is somehow defining what is or is not
safe is a brand-new situation for many companies. They are used to having a
regulatory system which they, to some extent, have contributed to. So, suddenly
they have a brand-new regulatory system in Europe which they had nothing to do
with and can't go do the usual stuff with campaign finance and lobbying and
campaign contributions. It doesn't quite work like Washington. So, there was a
time when America was the central place where action was taking place; for
American companies that action is now shifting to Brussels. That's left them
We're not saying that these are bad people that want to poison us and so
forth and so forth, but I think that there is a resistance to taking in the
growing body of scientific evidence that suggests the dangers that are inherent
in many of these chemicals.
Petrovic: What is the difference between the Americans and the EU approach
certain hazardous and toxic chemicals?
Schapiro: The basic difference between the way Americans and the EU approach
certain chemicals is something called the precautionary principle. The EU
essentially abides by the principle that if enough body of evidence accumulates
around the toxicity of a certain substance, whether it is a carcinogen or a
reproductive toxin, whatever it is, rather than wait for what is the final bit
of clinching evidence, they ban certain chemicals to essentially prevent
whatever harm it is that could be happening from happening.
The United States tends to function under the assumption that final
scientific proof on a question of chemical toxicity -- that there will be a
final resolution of scientific doubts -- and then the agency can move forward.
Well, how often does that happen? Not very often. We saw it in the global
warming debate; the United States was waiting for the final answer on global
warming while the rest of the world was seeing the accumulation of the evidence,
which they at some point decided to act upon. The same thing happens with
chemicals. The EU is willing to act on an accumulation of scientific evidence
that suggest problems down the line to prevent certain problems from happening.
The American industry argues that the more loose system in the United States
helps encourage innovation, and to some extent, perhaps at a certain point in
our history that might have been true. But, now if you look at it, the
imposition of principles to take the most toxic chemicals out of products in
Europe, which is happening now as we speak, is giving rise to a huge industry in
green chemistry that is being prompted by the industry.
Petrovic: How did this fall of American environmental leadership happen over
the course of 25 years?
Schapiro: I think these last six years have been a remarkable retreat.
Petrovic:Just these last six years?
Schapiro: Well, I think these years have been more dramatic. I do think that
Clinton's EPA could have done a lot more than it did. There has been a very
dramatic and active retreat from the very principles of environmental protection
over the last five to six years. I think there has been very little effort to
even pretend to be protecting the environment in this current administration.
Petrovic: How extreme do you think the problem of toxic chemicals in everyday
Schapiro: I'm not one of these apocalyptic guys; I'm not one of these
Armageddon types thinking that everything is toxic. We make trade-offs in the
world. We make trade-offs everyday -- we put a light on everyday.
Nor should people walk around freaked out that everything they're touching is
toxic, but I think they have a right to know. If there is a toxic substance in
something, they should have a right to know and then decide whether they want to
use it. Like, for example, I smoke. If I do smoke, and I make a decision to
smoke, I know exactly what I'm doing. I know there are certain risks associated
So, I think one of the issues of the toxicity of everyday products is that so
much of this stuff we don't know. We don't know because the manufacturers are
not required to tell us or tell the government what's in their products. No. 1
is to require a full disclosure as to the substances that are in all the
products that we buy every day so that people can decide. Americans have every
right to ask of their government what's going on.
For products without