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Different philosophies about "toxins"

Clearly, Europe and the U.S. have different regulatory philosophies. Europe emphasizes the precautionary principle which maintains that a chemical should not be marketed unless it has been shown to be safe. American chemical producers are of the opinion that the precautionary principle, while portraying an image of motherhood and apple pie, is naive. Determining risk based upon the inherent toxic properties of a chemical is unrealistic, they say, it is actual exposure that matters.

An analogy is commonly used to support this view. A tiger is inherently dangerous, but meeting one in the wild presents a different risk from seeing one in a zoo. There may be inherent toxicity to a particular chemical but if you use it under certain conditions, the exposure is minimal and presents no risk. True enough. But Europeans would retort that even in a zoo, a tiger can reach out and inflict injury, or perhaps, even escape. And there may be gentler animals that can replace tigers in zoos, perhaps even without needing to be caged.

Phthalates, are an interesting case in point. Rodent trials have shown interference with androgen function, and a human study made a big splash with its finding that women who had higher blood levels of phthalates gave birth to male babies with a reduced distance between the anus and the genitals, seemingly a consequence of hormonal disruption. European regulators have concluded that it is therefore better to err on the side of safety, and have removed questionable phthalates from children’s toys. U.S producers claim that feeding phthalates to rats is not the same as playing with toys, and that phthalate syndrome is a rat, not a human syndrome. But the fact is that toys have not disappeared from European stores. Alternative and apparently safer plasticizers, such as 1,2-cyclohexanedicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester, have been developed.

There are numerous other cases of chemicals commonly used in the U.S but not allowed in European products, apparently without compromising efficacy or availability. How can the same scientific data lead to such different conclusions? It is a matter of interpretation. Americans want conclusive data before acting, while for Europeans, the possibility of harm is enough to bring about regulation, as long as safer replacement products are available. This means that Americans are buying products that would not be legal in Europe, or in instances, in China. Canada is also leaning towards the European model and under The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), is now reassessing the safety of many chemical substances that were introduced before comprehensive environmental protection laws were created. But no matter what, safety can never be guaranteed. It always comes down to a risk benefit analysis.

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