REACHing Across the Atlantic: US, EU Begin to Tango on Chemical Regulations

Barack Obama seems to be growing adept at finding alternate ways of skinning the cat.

After acknowledging his party’s “shellacking” in the recent elections, the president announced that he was giving up on trying to get a cap and trade climate bill through the Senate. He insisted he was still committed to taking action on climate change, but cap and trade, he said, “was just one way of skinning the cat. It was not the only way.”

In what may be one modest example of how Obama plans to get things done as he faces an increasingly uncooperative Congress, the administration has announced an agreement that brings the US just a bit closer to Europe’s groundbreaking program for regulating chemicals.

The EPA and the European Chemicals Agency have issued a statement of intent outlining their plan to share information related to chemical regulations. The agreement, like most international, interagency accords, is couched in cautious language and prefaced with multiple provisos. The agencies acknowledge the agreement is limited to “technical cooperation and the exchange of views on regulatory tasks within their respective mandates.” And it points out that anything beyond “professional peer contact” will require a formal international agreement.

Still, it sets the stage for the US to get a big leg-up on putting some muscle in our notoriously lax program for keeping the public safe from the chemicals used in making thousands of products we eat, drink, wear, breathe, sit on and otherwise come into contact with every day.

Last year, the EU put into effect a new chemical law known by its acronym REACH. It’s by far the most progressive such law anywhere. It takes as its basic premise that companies have to demonstrate a chemical is safe before they can put it on the market. (I’ve produced radio reports on REACH and the European approach to chemicals and recycling here and here.)

This is a radical reversal of the approach in the US, where you can put a product out there and it’s up to the government to prove it’s dangerous.

In the past 30-plus years since the Toxic Substances Control Act was signed by Gerald Ford, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way into use. Last year, EPA chief Lisa Jackson told a Senate committee,” While many of these chemicals likely cause little or no risk, the story is clear; we’ve only been able to effectively regulate a handful of chemicals, and we know very little about the rest.”

The European Chemical Agency is in the process of gathering exactly that information: what’s out there, what’s in it and what are the risks. Access to that data could prove an enormous boost to a strengthened regulatory program in the US. The industry will predictably argue against reform by saying it’s too burdensome to analyse and report on all those chemicals they sell us. That objection will carry less weight if the EPA can say,”Look, the Europeans have already done a lot of that work and they’ll let us use it.” EU technocrats I interviewed in Brussels in 2009 offered exactly that as an example of how the US might benefit from REACH.

The push in the US for a more Europe-like approach to chemicals has been gathering steam over the past year. Last April, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill that would – like REACH – put the burden of proof for chemical safety on industry, not government. Lisa Jackson’s EPA seems firmly onboard. Even the American Chemistry Council is making noises that they understand the need to update the law.

How this all plays out, of course, remains to be seen. With anti-regulation Republicans feeling their oats after their electoral gains last month, it’s a pretty sure bet that whatever bill ends up passing Congress (assuming one eventually does) won’t be overtly European. Even last summer, when I spoke with EPA folks they were leery of drawing direct connections to REACH and made a point of saying US regulations would be distinctly Made-in-America.

But however politically incorrect it may be to associate American policy with those cheese-eating, wine-sipping socialist elitists across the Atlantic, it seems likely that as the US brings its chemical regulations into the 21st Century, we’ll find ourselves walking a path already being trod by European feet.


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