By Mark Schapiro
Chelsea Green Publishing, $22.95
Reviewed by Susan Moran
In the quagmire of the Iraq war, the United States has lost credibility as a world leader. In Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, investigative journalist Mark Schapiro offers another version of the erosion of American leadership. In this case, it's how the U.S. government has gone from one whose environmental laws and regulations were once a model for other nations to one whose standards have fallen so far below those of even some developing nations.
As the long-time editorial director at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., Schapiro has tracked and dissected the downward trajectory of U.S. environmental and public health standards. In 1981 he co-authored a book with fellow CIR journalist David Weir, The Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World, which described how the U.S. government continued to export to developing countries many pesticides it had banned from domestic use. The process of "dumping" toxic products like DDT overseas not only poisoned many local residents, it also harmed workers in U.S. factories. Ultimately, the pesticides found their way into U.S. kitchens, in salads, coffee and other foods.
In Exposed, Schapiro reveals that the United States is now a dumping ground for chemicals and consumer products that don't meet more stringent health standards elsewhere. Ironically, products made overseas — lead-laced toys from China notwithstanding—are now often safer than those made in the United States.
U.S. politicians and chemical industry executives have fought tooth and nail product-safety mandates enacted by the European Union. Schapiro recounts, for example, how Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a personal letter asking an Italian legislator to abandon a 2003 proposal by the European Commission to register, evaluate and authorize more than 60,000 untested chemicals before they would be deemed safe enough to remain on the market.
The proposal, which became law, was Europe's challenge to a big loophole in the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, passed in 1976, when environmental policy in Europe was still handled by individual countries. TSCA exempted 62,000 chemicals already on the market. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to this day 95 percent of all chemicals have never been subjected to any tests for toxicity or environmental impact.
Even when U.S. companies have adapted their manufacturing processes to adhere to stricter regulations imposed in Europe so they can sell their products there, many of them continue making a separate line of products for the U.S. market and other lax markets in some developing countries, Schapiro says.
A glaring example of this is the cosmetics industry's bifurcated marketing. Procter & Gamble, the behemoth maker of Head and Shoulders shampoo, Gillette razor blades, Clairol hair dye, Cover Girl and Max Factor cosmetics and many more ubiquitous personal-care products, quickly changed its manufacturing processes to adhere to a 2005 European Union mandate called the Cosmetics Directive, which banned all ingredients in cosmetics that may contribute to cancer, have mutagenic effects or damage the reproductive system. Across the Atlantic, however, P&G has continued to sell the products containing the suspect ingredients.
Schapiro places most of the blame on U.S. manufacturers, but the U.S. government is for its part hugely responsible for not enacting laws that would force U.S. companies to clean up their act.Without policy or regulatory pressure, few companies here or even in Europe have cleaned up their act. Schapiro does note that the Food and DrugAdministration has little authority to regulate the ingredients in cosmetics, though it monitors overthe- counter prescription drugs and food additives.
What's more, the EPA's mandate to regulate chemicals has been reduced to a rubber stamp for industry, especially during the current Bush administration.
Those keen on learning more about how coal tar appears in dandruff shampoo, how lead lies in lipstick, and how many other products that we rub into our skin before bed contain toxic compounds, might also enjoy reading another recentlypublished book, Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, by Stacy Malkan, a founding member of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
If there's any silver lining to Schapiro's grim expos., it's that more countries, including China, are emulating the EU's consumer-safety standards, rather than more lenient U.S. standards. That could increasingly put U.S. manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage overseas but benefit American consumers if it means that they can choose to buy safer imported products. Americans are becoming accidental beneficiaries of protective standards created by another government, over which they have no influence, and they needn't fall prey to a "dumping ground" economic landscape, Schapiro says.
Susan Moran is a freelance reporter based in Boulder, Colo.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue