An interview with Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

How did you become interested in the topics in Exposed? What inspired you to write this book?

As a journalist, I’ve spent much of my career working and living in Europe and following the evolution of the European Union (EU) into what it is today—the world’s largest economy. This shift in economic influence has gone largely unnoticed by most Americans.

I wanted to explore what that shift has meant in the realm of the environment: What happens when U.S. multinational companies, accustomed to operating according to U.S. rules, suddenly face tougher standards coming from what is now the world’s single largest market? This book investigates the U.S. response—and reveals how in many ways consumers in this country are being left exposed to environmental hazards to which their European peers are protected. In the early 1980s I coauthored a book, Circle of Poison, which exposed how the U.S. was exporting banned pesticides to developing countries. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. was becoming the recipient of many chemicals banned in Europe.

I was also interested in reporting on the environmental and economic impact of the U.S. retreat from environmental protection, and on the environmental dimension to the overall shrinking of U.S. global influence and concurrent rise of the European Union. The United States is exposing itself not only to environmental hazards, but to dramatic economic consequences to come as other major economic players, including China, increasingly follow Europe’s lead in establishing environmental criteria for the products in the global economy.

What is the single greatest toxin Americans should be concerned about and in what product, or products, is it commonly found?

There is no “single greatest toxin.” However, there are many substances in common products—cosmetics, toys, electronics and many others—that scientists have shown are potent carcinogens, mutagens, and neurological toxins. These are included in many consumer products—including electronic devices, cosmetics, automobiles and children’s toys. One example cited in the book is phthalates. One phthalate in particular, DEHP, is used to make toys more pliable for young children.

How are phthalates treated in the European Union, and have they been banned, or reduced from use, in products there?

In Europe, phthalates, DEHP specifically, are banned for use in toys likely to be used by children three years of age or less. In the United States, there is no such ban, and DEHP, as well as other phthalates, continue to be found by independent monitors in toys sold in the United States.

The question of devising alternatives is a global one. Most of the world’s toys, for example, are produced in China where manufacturers have shown that they can produce toys for Europe without phthalates, while continuing to produce toys for the United States with them.

Your book speaks to not just the environmental impacts, but also how some products are more dangerous to certain classes, or races, of people. What do you think explains this?

The Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute cautions that some substances in cosmetics mimic the female hormone estrogen, and that such additives in hair-care products may be contributing to otherwise inexplicable incidences of breast cancer among African American women under the age of forty. There is also increasing evidence that skin lighteners may be carcinogenic—a particular danger to African Americans, Asians, and others who utilize these substances. Workers in salons have also been found to have higher rates of bladder cancer—which many scientists ascribe to the high rates of chemical substances to which they’re exposed in the normal course of work.

In general, some of the large electronics and cosmetics companies which operate in Europe and America are adjusting their formulations to comply with Europe’s far stricter controls over chemical hazards. However, a significant portion of the U.S. market consists of discounted, no-name manufactured goods that are more accessible to lower-income consumers and which frequently contain chemicals that are banned in Europe.

What are some favorite alternative/“green” products that are being developed by manufacturers for the EU market, but not for the American market?

Every product sold in Europe that once contained substances now banned has its more benign alternative. That includes toys, electrical goods, and cosmetics. The same goods available in Europe are available in the United States, but they are frequently formulated differently. A parent, for example, can be certain that toys being used by their male children do not contain DEHP, whereas a parent in the United States has no such assurance.

What can those concerned about these toxins do? They seem to be everywhere! Are there lessons we can take from NGOs, citizen groups, and governments in the EU?

They are not “everywhere.” Compare your average American home with that of someone of comparable socio-economic status in Europe: the EU’s laws ensure that the products in the latter contain far fewer toxins than those in the average American home. The difference is that laws on one side of the Atlantic are far more careful as to the hazards contained in those products than they are in the United States. And despite warnings in the U.S. that such laws could have dire economic consequences, Exposed shows that there has been no economic catastrophe for the industries affected by such bans in Europe.

How do you respond to manufacturers’ claims that the fact the United States is a litigious society is the only real oversight they need? How do you respond to statements such as: “If there was solid scientific evidence that these products were harmful, the toy industry would be the first to remove them” from Joan Lawrence, the vice president for Standards and Regulatory Affairs of the Toy Industry Association?

These are two separate questions.

First, it is true that the United States is a far more “litigious” society than Europe. The United States generally has a far more vigorous civil liability system than the Europeans, offering greater access to the courts and with damages that are far higher when it comes to liability from dangerous products. The existence of this system—known as “tort law”—is often used by industry to support its position that stronger regulation of chemical hazards is not necessary because the U.S. legal system offers a check against dangerous products. This presumption offers the prospect of justice after the damage has been done, while the European approach attempts to prevent such abuses before they happen.

Exposed also reveals that often the same companies that make this argument—suggesting there is no need to meet the tough approach in Europe with an equally tough approach in the United States—are some of the biggest financial supporters of the “tort reform” campaign in the United States to weaken those legal checks on product liability.

Second, the question at the heart of the U.S. and EU approach to chemicals is: How do you define “solid evidence?” Regarding phthalates in toys, the EU looked at the same data as have U.S. regulators, but came to an entirely different conclusion about phthalate’s dangers. Much of that evidence came from U.S. researchers. The big toy companies with operations in the United States and Europe, and which also happen to be members of Joan Lawrence’s trade association, have removed phthalates. Though they fought the ban at first, all companies with sales in Europe have now accommodated to removing phthalates from their toys and found far more benign alternatives.

As Exposed reports, there has been negligible economic impact on the European toy industry from this change.

Can you boil down into a simple statement the difference in attitude between the EU and the U.S. government regarding these toxins and potential health risks?

There are always scientists who will dispute other’s findings. That’s the nature of science—one answer leads to another question. But the Europeans have chosen to act on an array of chemical hazards based on the same evidence that has been reviewed by U.S. regulators, who have chosen not to act. The EU operates according to the precautionary principle: they act when an accumulation of scientific evidence suggests potential harm, and attempt to prevent that harm from happening. U.S. regulators wait for final scientific “proof”—an elusive goal that creates what critics call “paralysis by analysis.”

What is the greatest positive change you’ve seen in the United States in the last several years—the one that gives you the greatest hope?

The rising environmental consciousness in the United States is putting manufacturers on notice that there is a growing market for environmentally sustainable and less dangerous products. NGOs and environmental health scientists are beginning to look to Europe to discern alternate paths of production, suggesting numerous models in which solutions have been devised that are both environmentally and economically sustainable, and which do not present health hazards that are present in the United States.

Of the main categories in your book (cosmetics/personal care, plastics/toys, food, electronics/automobiles), in which area do you feel the greatest strides are being made?

Major name electronics manufacturers are, in essence, adopting the rules of the European Union in reformulating their products with less hazardous chemicals. This reflects a historic development, where U.S. firms are for the first time abiding by rules for protection of citizens emanating from a foreign government. Thus, the global market is propelling changes in this arena. This, however, does not include the smaller, so-called “white box” manufacturers which occupy about twenty percent of the U.S. market, and are under no legal obligation to remove the toxins from their products. U.S. natural cosmetics companies are offering products without dangerous chemical ingredients in the United States; their European counterparts are doing so as well.

Are there any areas in which the United States is taking the lead over Europe?

As has happened time and again in Europe, there is nothing more powerful than a legal ban on substances to focus industry initiatives on the development of less toxic chemical formulations, known loosely as “green chemistry.” In every industry where there has been such a ban in Europe, alternatives are being found. In the United States, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts estimates that alternatives are available for at least a quarter of “problematic chemicals” now in use in the United States. Research on another forty-five percent is showing “great promise,” awaiting the financial commitment of industry to support such research.

When did this geopolitical shift begin to emerge, and did any U.S. administration take note of it?

This geopolitical shift began occurring in the latter years of the previous century, and really took hold when the EU expanded from fifteen to twenty-five member countries in 2004; in 2007 the EU expanded again with two new member countries. That created a unified market, larger than that of the United States, which could demand that manufacturers adapt to Europe’s standards in order to gain access. There was a convergence of forces: the coalescing of Europe into a powerful economic and political bloc; the inclusion of environmental health priorities in EU policy making; and the simultaneous retreat from such policies in the United States. The EU now plays a role as global environmental leader that was once occupied by the United States.

You mention that China is beginning to take Europe’s lead — what are they doing and why? What other countries are taking the EU’s lead?

China has established its own strict rules governing the toxic permitted in electronic devices that are closely modeled on those of the European Union; the country is also beginning to train its industrial leaders in basic European principles of risk assessment to enable them to conform to a new European regulation, known as REACH, which requires that toxicity data on thousands of chemicals now in common use be submitted to European regulators—a requirement that does not exist in the United States. Other countries like Korea are following the European approach to chemical hazards in cosmetics as well as in electronics. Overall, the global market is growing for environmentally sustainable production, and the United States, with little incentive from its government, is falling behind.

Could we see a time when products could only be available here in the United States and banned in other parts of the world?

That is already the case. As Exposed reveals, certain chemicals now used in U.S. cosmetics, electronics and toys are banned in Europe, Japan, and Canada, and in the case of electronics, in China; furniture made from processed wood is now sold in the United States which contains levels of formaldehyde far in excess of that permitted in either Europe or Japan; certain chemicals and heavy metals used in automobiles in the U.S. are banned in Europe. Because there are no U.S. laws prohibiting the use of such substances, the American market is emerging on par with that of developing countries, while economic powerhouses like China, Korea, and others are following the EU’s lead.

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Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.