As we pass through the season of toy recalls into the heyday season of Christmas consumerism, few of the presidential candidates on either side of the aisle have yet to seriously focus on an issue that would send a powerful signal of commitment to protecting Americans. The question of ensuring American's security from the hazards to their health contained in hundreds of consumer products hangs like a ripe fruit for any candidate willing to pick it. Who is out there protecting Americans from these hidden hazards? The answer: practically nobody.
We now know what happens when illegal substances like lead are integrated into toys and shipped to the United States from China: They slip into the country past the eviscerated Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose sole toy inspector spends most of his time making sure toys don't break in children's hands, rather than assessing the toxic substances that enter into their body. In fact, the CPSC's budget has dropped almost in parallel with the rising reliance of U.S. toy manufacturers on production in China.
Hillary Clinton may have called for greater vigilance of our imports from China, but its not just illegal substances like lead that are being integrated into an array of consumer products. A host of substances suspected of causing cancer, mutating genes and disrupting the reproductive system are permitted in this country, while much of the world–our economic peers in Europe, Japan and even in emerging economies like Korea–are banning them from use. U.S. influence has been slipping globally, diminished by a bellicose foreign policy, the rapidly dropping clout of the dollar and the quicksand of Iraq. But nowhere are Americans feeling this shrinking global presence than in the realm of their health.
Once, thirty years ago, the United States was the leader on environmental protection. What we did in America–creating the EPA, passing laws regulating chemicals–was followed by the rest of the world. Our law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was the first in the world to address the potential health dangers from chemicals. But it included a massive loophole: Any chemical already on the market as of 1981 did not have to undergo any testing for their effects on human health or the environment. The result: Some thirty years later, ninety percent of the chemicals on the market today–some 65,000 substances–have never been assessed for their toxicity.
Over the intervening twenty-six years, our laws have not kept up with the exponential increase in scientific knowledge of chemicals' effects on the human body. But the rest of the world is moving ahead. Those moves are being led by the European Union, which now includes 480 million people spread across twenty-seven countries, constituting an integrated market far larger than that of the United States. The Europeans are looking at the billions of dollars in costs to public health triggered by exposure to toxic chemicals, and are opting to act while the United States remains complacent with the status quo.
Take toys, for example: the Europeans responded to a growing body of evidence suggesting that a plastic additive called phthalates may contribute to decreased production of testosterone in infant boys by banning the substance from use in products aimed at children under the age of three. Much of the evidence used by the Europeans to make that decision came from American scientists, some of whom have been supported in their research by our own EPA. But there has been no one in the US government willing to listen. The result: toys are manufactured in China without phthalates for export to the European Union, and with phthalates for export to the United States. European manufacturers have found far less toxic alternatives and European kids have as many plastic animals and other goofy playthings as their American counterparts.
Another example, cosmetics: There is no independent body anywhere in the United States that independently assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. Who knew how many carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive system inhibitors are included in cosmetics? Now we know, because the Europeans have published a 'negative' list banning such substances from cosmetics now sold in Europe. And not just Europe: increasing numbers of emerging economies, like Korea and Brazil, are beginning to look to Brussels, capitol of the EU, and not Washington for guidance in how to address such potential hazards.
Altogether, America's bluff is being called: The world's other major economy is showing that safety and financial success are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, at a time of rising environmental sensitivity in the marketplace, many of these 'greener' businesses are now posing a competitive challenge to U.S. producers. The first candidate to realize that this issue strikes directly at American's sense of safety and security will reap the benefits.
Mark Schapiro is the editorial director of CIR, and author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power.