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Originally published Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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EU chemical rules pressure U.S. firms

Europe this month rolled out new restrictions on makers of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, changes that are forcing...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Europe this month rolled out new restrictions on makers of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, changes that are forcing U.S. industries to find new ways to produce a wide range of everyday products.

The new laws in the European Union (EU) require companies to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before it enters commerce, the opposite of policies in the United States, where regulators must prove a chemical is harmful before it can be restricted or removed from the market. Manufacturers said complying with the European laws will add billions to their costs.

The changes come as consumers increasingly are worried about the long-term consequences of chemical exposure and are agitating for more aggressive regulation. In the United States, these pressures have spurred efforts in Congress and some state legislatures to pass laws that would circumvent the laborious federal regulatory process.

The EU laws, opposed by the U.S. chemical industry and the Bush administration, will be phased in over the next decade. It is difficult to know how the changes will affect products for sale in the United States. But U.S. manufacturers are searching for safer alternatives to chemicals used to manufacture thousands of consumer goods, from bike helmets to shower curtains.

The EU's stance on chemical regulation is the latest area in which the Europeans are reshaping business practices with demands that U.S. companies either comply or lose access to a market of 27 countries and nearly 500 million people.

From its crackdown on antitrust practices in the computer industry to its rigorous protection of consumer privacy, the EU has adopted a regulatory philosophy that emphasizes the consumer.

Its approach to managing chemical risks is part of a European focus on caution when it comes to health and the environment.

"There's a strong sense in Europe and the world at large that America is letting the market have a free ride," said Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Under the EU laws, manufacturers must study and report the risks posed by specific chemicals. Through the Internet, the data will be available for the first time to consumers, regulators and potential litigants around the world. Until now, much of that information either did not exist or was closely held by companies.

"This is going to compel companies to be more responsible for their products than they have ever been," said Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International Environmental Law.

The laws also call for the EU to create a list of "substances of very high concern," those suspected of causing cancer or other health problems. Any manufacturer wishing to produce or sell a chemical on that list must receive special authorization.

In the United States, laws in place for three decades have made banning or restricting chemicals extremely difficult. The nation's chemical policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals then in commercial use.

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Chemicals developed after the law's passage did not have to be tested for safety. Instead, companies were asked to report toxicity information to the government, which would decide if additional tests were needed.

In more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required additional studies for about 200 chemicals, a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals that are part of the U.S. market.

Only five chemicals have been banned by the EPA since 1976: polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; fully halogenated chlorofluroalkanes; dioxin; hexavalent chromium; and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT.

Asbestos was banned for a while, although the ban was overturned in 1991. Asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen, is barred in more than 30 countries.

The EPA relies on industry to voluntarily cease production of suspect chemicals.

"If you ask people whether they think the drain cleaner they use in their homes has been tested for safety, they think, of course, the government would have never allowed a product on the market without knowing it's safe," said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "When you tell them that's not the case, they can't believe it."

The EU standards will force many manufacturers to reformulate their products for sale there and in the U.S. "We're not looking at this as a European program; we're buying and selling all over the globe," said Linda Fisher, vice president and chief sustainability officer for DuPont and a former EPA deputy administrator.

DuPont expects to spend "tens of millions" of dollars to register about 500 chemicals with the EU, Fisher said. Twenty to 30 are expected to make the list of "substances of very high concern."

One such chemical is likely to be perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used to make Teflon and other substances used in food packaging, carpets, clothing and electrical equipment. A suspected carcinogen, it accumulates in the environment and in human tissue.

DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA in 2005 on charges that it illegally withheld information about health risks posed by PFOA and about water pollution near a West Virginia plant. DuPont and other companies have agreed to cease production by 2015.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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