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Hold the Applause

Monday, March 7, 2011

By Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior Vice President for Research

Two weeks ago (Feb. 17), fellow activists proclaimed the upbeat news that the European Union had banned xylene and five other toxic chemicals that pose risks to human health and the environment. These would be the first compounds to be targeted for oblivion under Europe's much-touted chemical safety law known as REACH (for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals).

That would be big news indeed, given that xylene is a component of gasoline. We were thrilled to see five toxic and largely replaceable chemicals on the list, but puzzled over how car owners would manage.

Our colleagues clarified the issue for us. It turned out that it was "musk xylene," a synthetic fragrance, not the kind in gasoline, that was on the hit list. That's a big difference, but still reason to celebrate. Musk xylene is a hormone disrupter that contaminates breast milk. The other five on the list are three phthalate plasticizers that the EU had previously banned in toys, a toxic fire retardant called hexabromocyclododecane and the cancer-causing epoxy resin and adhesive chemical 4,4'-diaminodiphenylmethane.

Well done, we say to those an ocean away who worked hard to get this done! Safer consumer products for all of us will surely follow.

But reporter Cheryl Hogue of Chemical and Engineering News soon enough reminded us of the limits of a REACH "ban." For one thing, a company can continue selling or using a banned chemical if it can demonstrate that the risks can be controlled or that economic or societal benefits outweigh those risks.

And then a policy expert in the E.U. confirmed -- the announcement marks the beginning of an authorization process that will determine whether the chemicals will be banned -- or not.

Suddenly our instinct to celebrate felt a bit like (oops) clapping after the first movement of a symphony. Hold the applause until the end, please.

REACH became law in 2006. In a universe of around 100,000 chemicals, the six just listed are the first to reach this point, the first step toward a ban that may not be a ban five years from now. Three years ago, European activists briefed us on their disappointment when the EU regulators original priority list of 1,500 toxic, high-priority chemicals was slashed to 15. And now it's down to six.

My EWG colleague David Andrews has found that there is rapid turnover in the chemical market. EPA spent more than a decade gathering toxicity information for thousands of high production volume chemicals, only to find that roughly 40 percent of those it studied are no longer being widely produced. About two newly invented chemicals are registered for use every single day - a fact that sets the pace for any agency that hopes to assess chemical toxicity in a timely way. How else will those reviewing the safety of chemicals here or in Europe keep up with this quickly shifting market?

We look forward to having the massive database of basic chemical safety data that REACH requires the industry to generate. But how - and how quickly - will the U.S. EPA evaluate these data for their own chemical safety determinations? We look forward to finding out.

In the U.S. this will all be just prelude to what EWG and many others have been pushing hard to achieve - a legislative overhaul of the tepid and toothless Toxic Substances Control Act we've been stuck with since 1976 (under which, as has been widely reported, EPA could not even ban asbestos).

Bravo to the European Union for coming up with its first list of six. Now it's time for everyone to pick up the tempo. We need to move markets, change minds, and - in Washington - pass a reform bill.

And please, hold the applause until the baton is down. [Thanks to flickr CC and blatantnews.com for the EU flag]


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