Better Living Through Chemicals

Harper’s has an interesting article by Mark Schapiro on the efforts of the European Union to quantify the health impact of tens of thousands of chemicals found in clothing, toys, cookware, cosmetics and increasingly, our blood. Naturally, the United States is opposed to it.

In the late 1990s, citizens of several European countries learned from newspaper reports that their infants were constantly being exposed to a host of toxic chemicals. Babies were sleeping in pajamas treated with cancer-causing flame retardants; they were sucking on bottles laced with plastic additives believed to alter hormones; their diapers were glued together with nerve-damaging toxins normally used to kill algae on the hulls of ships. When European health officials tried to look into the matter, they were confounded by how little they actually knew about these and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Regulators discovered that they had no way of assessing the dangers of long-term exposure to everyday products. Some manufacturers of baby goods did not even know what was in their own products, since chemical producers were under no obligation to tell them. Such data, if it existed at all, was secreted away in the vaults of chemical companies and had never been submitted to any government authority.