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Investigative Journalist M. Schapiro on Environmental Toxins and US Citizens

Suzanne Price

One of the most influencial books in my research for the creation of Sprout was Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, by investigative journalist Mark Schapiro. It shockingly exposed how Europe and increasingly the rest of the world is better protected from environmental toxins than are the citizens of the United States. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Schapiro at his office in Berkeley, where he is Senior Correspondent at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit journalism that supports and sustains this kind of long-term investigative process that led to the book.

See below for our interview and pick up his book if you would like to learn more; I highly recommend it.

How did you get interested in the topic for this book?

In the eighties, I co-authored a book called Circle of Poison about the exporting of toxic chemicals from the U.S. to other countries. Many years later, living in Europe, I was shocked to see that it was now working in reverse. Chemicals that were now banned there were being legally sold in the U.S.  I had never imagined that in America we would be exposed to things that people were protected from elsewhere. The U.S. was no longer the leader in protecting its citizens.

Then I thought I’d look at the central argument against more protective regulations:, that they would have devastating financial consequences. I looked into the financials of the industries most impacted by Europe’s regulations. And it turns out that in Europe many busineeses, entire industries, are in fact thriving as they devise new alternatives to some of the most toxic substances. There are many instances of European companies now beating their American competitors in this area.

Why do you think this is the case?

I think it is partly because the political figures who took these initiatives in Europe are operating in a system of universal healthcare. They are looking at economic consequences 10 – 30 years down the road. That gives politicians in Europe greater sensitivities to the actual health costs from toxic substances, as well as the public.

Another reason is that, in the U.S., the chemical industry has a direct impact on the political process through their campaign contributions and lobbying; the industry has been one of the top lobbying forces in Washington for decades. In Europe the industry’s influence is there, certainly, but far more diffuse, largely due to the serious limits on direct campaign contributions.

Was there a golden age of protection in the U.S.?

In the 1970s, with the creation of the EPA, the government was waking up to environmental protection. The United States was at the forefront globally of passing innovative laws to regulate environmental hazards. Since then, though, there has been a steady retrenchment, accelerated significantly by  the recent Bush administration.

Is there a fundamental difference in the way our governments approach protection?

In Europe, they operate under the precautionary principal. This permits government action to be triggered by an accumulation of scientific evidence that is enough to raise significant questions. It acknowledges the essential uncertainty that is at the heart of all scientific research.  In the United States,  after years of industry pressure on the EPA, there is an extremely high standard of absolute proof that must be met before the EPA can ban a chemical. That standard, most scientists will tell you, is practically impossible to meet given the inherent uncertainties of science. This is why the EPA has banned just five chemicals since it was created more than thirty years ago.

By contrast, in Europe, the precautionary principle permits the government to act when faced with an accumulation of evidence that suggests harm; its empowered to act to prevent that harm. There is an assumption that the risk of being wrong about a substance is outweighed by the enormity of the danger if the chemical is truly toxic.

This precautionary principal also allows extra leeway for evidence of any harm to children—who are far more vulnerable to the toxic effects of chemicals than adults.

What did you find were some reactions of Americans as you toured around the country on your book?

Many were surprised, because there is a great illusion among Americans that some government agency is looking out for the safety of the products that they buy. That just isn’t true.

I spoke at public events across the country, and the biggest group of listeners, overall, was anxious mothers. They were outraged by what they heard they might be exposing their children to.

Also, to my surprise, many people interpreted my message to imply that I was warning them about all chemicals, every single chemical, which I am not. This type of reaction does not serve citizens, or anxious mothers, who may throw up their hands in the face of a general, unspecific warning about chemicals. But the fact is there are some chemicals that are CLEARLY harmful to human health, and others that are either less harmful or not yet thoroughly understood. My point is that we need to distinguish, as I tried to do in my book, between those which the evidence suggests are harmful, and others whose toxicity is not yet clear.

Our own EPA has no power to require the toxicity data from the companies that would enable either the government, or we, the public, to make that determination. In Europe, now, the government has that right—and they’re using it to gather toxicity data on a whole range of chemicals. The result is that chemicals are being sold to us in the U.S. whose toxicity has been reported to the European Union but not to our own Environmental Protection Agency.

What shocked you the most about what you learned in your research for the book?

Learning about phthalates really stunned me. There was a huge body of scientific evidence, including by EPA scientists, that was used to support the EU decision to ban phthalates 15 years ago. These studies showed that phthalates clearly effects the endocrine system, primarily in male infants. Other studies in adult men demonstrated how quickly the chemicals enter a person’s body when placed in the mouth for a short time.

Another big surprise was cosmetics. Despite what most consumers believe, the FDA has no authority at all to regulate the toxins in cosmetics. In the E.U. there is constant monitoring of the cosmetics industry.

What do you think needs to change in the U.S. politically?

It is very difficult to have a chemical by chemical approach to protection as we do here. Banning phthalates in toys took years and the fight against formaldehyde is just beginning. We need a more systematic approach. The problem is that in the U.S., a chemical is innocent until proven guilty. We need to ask manufactures to demonstrate safety. This would not be difficult, as most companies already are producing this data for Europe.

The REACH program in the E.U. forces chemical companies to submit toxicity data along with the registration for a new chemical. The existing U.S. law does not require that this kind of information be turned over for safety review to the government. Today, the EPA  is so hampered in its abilities that it cannot even request toxicity data from companies already providing this same data to Europe.

Recently, the Kids Safe Chemical Act was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg, which would be the first step toward reform, a sort of weakened version of Europe’s REACH program. Its already hitting major opposition from the chemical industry.

Wouldn’t these laws hurt U.S. industry?

What laws do is put all businesses on an equal playing field. If everyone had to produce to the new standards, there would be a greater production volume of the healthier products, which would make them more economical to produce. Currently, the healthier options are more expensive because the volumes are specialized. We need a mass market for these products in order to bring the price down.

How has this book changed the way you live your life?

I became aware of the subtle mechanisms by which chemicals work on the body and of the complexity of the human metabolism and how that can be disrupted. The danger is not just if something “causes cancer”, but there are an array of ways that toxic chemicals can disrupt a healthy metabolism.

I have also become more conscious of how every day things can contain minute quantities of chemicals that I want to stay away from. I am not fanatic or neurotic, and I still indulge in some things that I know are not great for my health. However, I believe that the more you learn, the more you can make can make informed decisions about what risks you want to take.

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