TCS Daily


By Roger Bate - August 6, 2003 12:00 AM

In 1997, Robert Nilsson, a senior scientist at the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate, (which is much like the US EPA), told me that Swedish officials were going crazy by trying to outlaw numerous chemicals. Professor Nilsson is no corporate lackey having been an expert witness in several cases against industry and having pushed for strict legislation in the 1970s and 1980s. But from the late 1990s he was worried that his colleagues were no longer basing decisions on science, but 'green dogma'. His concern was for Sweden but he also was worried that Europe and even the rest of the world would follow suit. Today, at least in Europe, his prediction is coming true. The Swedish hyper precaution is catching on, and we will all suffer because of it.


The Economist magazine says that the European Commission's current chemicals 'proposal is ambitious even by the EU's own lofty environmental rhetoric, dwarfing anything dreamt up by the bossy bureaucrats of America's Environmental Protection Agency'. And typical of its British understatement the Economist does not go nearly far enough.


The draft Directive is called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals). It does not address just the big polluters, or the nastiest chemicals, but after 30,000 substances used in dirty factories it also targets the cleaner pharmaceutical, cosmetic and perfume industries. In fact it targets chemicals that have been used in everyday life for decades, without any obvious harm.


Environmental pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, argue that current legislation 'has not delivered adequate protection of human health... and has not generated sufficient knowledge and public information about chemicals in use'. As a result of pressure by these groups, the aim of REACH is to test all these chemicals (the 30,000 in use prior to 1981), which are not subject to the existing tough safety-testing regime. This is ludicrous for myriad reasons.


First it is unselective. It makes sense to thoroughly test and even act in a precautionary fashion when dealing with chemicals that are known to be toxic, or where there is at least some scientific basis on which to assume high toxicity. But applying equal testing to all chemicals (even those many thousands where there is no evidence of any harm under even exceptional exposure levels) slows the testing of more dangerous chemicals and is very expensive.


Second it will stifle innovation. Corporate scientists will be occupied in mundane and pointless testing on chemicals they know to be safe (when used properly), instead of spending time developing new chemicals. Slowing development of new technologies prolongs the use of older chemicals, and most new chemicals displace old ones because they are cheaper, better, safer or provide some other benefit.


Third it will be discriminatory towards products manufactured outside of the EU. The Directive will harm European producers and the way the Directive will be implemented at national levels will probably favour national chemical producers. It is quite possible that the American chemical industry will complain to the US Trade Representative that the Directive breaches World Trade Organisation rules.


Fourth it will be very expensive. One industry estimate is that it will cost $45 billion to implement and cost numerous jobs. Other independent studies say that it could reduce EU GDP by up to 3% over the next decade. It is not surprising that even the normally green Germans are deeply concerned about the legislation.


Last it will probably kill an extra 10 million laboratory animals, needlessly. The tests require widespread use of animal testing, on chemicals known to be largely safe.


It was Swedish use of excessive precaution that led to the demise of its own chemical industry and this new Swedish style European Directive will similarly weaken the EU industry. But will it be confined just to Europe?


Professor Nilsson says that 'it seems quite clear that Sweden has had some success in exporting some of its extremist concepts to other countries'. What started in Sweden, is now encompassing the entire EU. How long before it reaches the US? Perhaps not that long. San Francisco's City Council is adopting the 'Precautionary Principle', which will, in short time, make it hard for the chemical industry to survive in its current form in California. And what starts in California often takes hold in the rest of America. In addition, greener members of various branches of the US government, as well as complicit green acolytes within the US chemical industry (such as corporate environmental compliance officers), will welcome the European Directive and will push for the same kind of legislation in America.


Professor Nilsson hopes that the Swedish experiment stops before it reaches the US.


Dr Roger Bate is a fellow of the International Policy Network and a columnist.


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