In 1997, Robert Nilsson, a senior scientist at the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, (which resembles the U.S. EPA), told me that Swedish officials were going crazy trying to outlaw numerous chemicals. Professor Nilsson himself is no corporate lackey, having pushed for strict chemicals legislation in the 1970s and 1980s. But from the late 1990s onwards he became worried that his colleagues were no longer basing decisions on science, but on “green dogma.” His original concern was for Sweden, but he later became alarmed that Europe and even the rest of the world might follow suit. Today, at least in Europe, his fears are coming true. Will the U.S. follow suit?
The Economist says that the European Commission’s current chemicals’ “proposal is ambitious even by the EU’s own lofty environmental rhetoric, dwarfing anything dreamt up by the bossy bureaucrats of America’s Environmental Protection Agency.” But the magazine did not go nearly far enough. The draft directive is called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals). It does not address just the big polluters, or even the nastiest chemicals, but also targets chemicals that have been used in everyday life for decades without any obvious harm.
Environmental pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, argue that current legislation “has not delivered adequate protection of human health…and has not generated sufficient knowledge and public information about chemicals in use.” As a result of pressure by these groups, the aim of REACH is to test chemicals (the 30,000 in use prior to 1981) which are not subject to the existing safety-testing regime. This is ludicrous for several reasons.
First, it is unselective. It makes sense to thoroughly test and even act in a precautionary fashion when dealing with chemicals that are known to be toxic, or where there is at least some scientific basis on which to assume high toxicity. But applying equal testing to all chemicals (even those many thousands where there is no evidence of any harm caused by exceptionally high exposure levels) is nonsensical, for it slows the testing of genuinely more dangerous chemicals.
Second, it will stifle innovation. Corporate scientists will be occupied in the mundane and pointless testing of chemicals they already know to be safe (when used properly) instead of spending time developing new ones. Slowing development of new technologies prolongs the use of older chemicals, and most new chemicals displace old ones because they are cheaper, better, safer, or provide some other benefit.
Third, it will be discriminatory towards products manufactured outside of the EU. The way the directive will be implemented at national levels will probably favor national chemical producers. It is quite possible that the American chemical industry will complain to the U.S. Trade Representative that the directive breaches World Trade Organization rules.
Fourth, it will be very expensive. One industry estimate is that it will cost $45 billion to implement and cost many jobs. Other independent studies say that it could reduce EU gross domestic product by up to three percent over the next decade. It is not surprising that even the normally green Germans are deeply concerned about the impact of the legislation.
Last, it will probably kill an extra ten million laboratory animals–needlessly. The tests require widespread use of animal testing, on chemicals known to be largely safe.
It was Swedish use of excessive precaution that led to the demise of its own, once-formidable chemical industry and this new Swedish-style European directive will similarly weaken the EU’s industry. But can it be confined just to Europe?
Professor Nilsson says that “it seems quite clear that Sweden has had some success in exporting some of its extremist concepts to other countries.” How long before it reaches the U.S.? Perhaps not that long. San Francisco’s City Council is adopting the “Precautionary Principle,” which will, in short time, make it hard for the chemical industry to survive in its current form in California. And what starts in California often takes hold in the rest of America. In addition, greener members of various branches of the U.S. government, as well as complicit green acolytes within the American chemical industry (such as corporate environmental-compliance officers), will welcome the European directive and will push for the same kind of legislation in U.S.
–Dr. Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.