Europe must resist chemical industry attacks on health and environment

A total of 1,378 chemicals are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, as opposed to a mere 11 in the US. Photo: Agnes via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
A total of 1,378 chemicals are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, as opposed to a mere 11 in the US. Photo: Agnes via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
Chemical and pesticide industry lobbyists are striving to abolish the European precautionary principle in favour of a so-called 'science-based' approach, write Lora Verheecke & Laura Große. If the EU succumbs to the spin, human health and the environment across Europe will be sacrificed to corporate profit.
These disparate regulatory approaches have very concrete repercussions for what consumers are exposed to. For example a total of 1,378 chemicals are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, as opposed to a mere 11 in the US.

Regulating potentially hazardous substances like chemicals and pesticides is an extremely sensitive policy area, since permitting them can have severe impacts on humans and ecosystems.

Generally speaking, there are two widely divergent approaches to chemicals regulation.

The first is based on the 'precautionary principle' and includes the possibility that in the absence of scientific consensus on the potential risk of a chemical or pesticide, regulators can opt to ban or restrict the product in order to protect public health and the environment.

In Europe, the regulation on the 'Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals' (REACH) and the Pesticide Regulation are subject to the precautionary principle. Manufacturers must provide the health and safety data of many (though not all) chemicals and all pesticides to EU regulators.

In addition, there are 'hazard-based' criteria that state that pesticides that are mutagenic, carcinogenic, or hormone-disrupting should be banned in the EU. All other substances have to undergo a 'risk assessment'. This means that a product is allowed on the EU market up to certain doses that are seen by regulators not to pose an acceptable risk to consumers.

US: 'weaker, less protective regulations'

On the contrary, in the US, the country's 'Toxic Substances Control Act', in place since 1976, does not provide for any precautionary measures.

Overall, the US has "generally weaker, less protective regulations governing health, safety and environmental impacts in agriculture and food production", according to the Global Economic Governance Initiative.

The US government has consistently opposed the EU's 'hazard-based' approach to mutagenic, carcinogenic, and hormone disrupting substances. Instead US regulators demand scientific evidence of harm before the use of any substance is regulated.

These disparate regulatory approaches have very concrete repercussions for what consumers are exposed to. For example a total of 1,378 chemicals are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, as opposed to a mere 11 in the US. Likewise 82 harmful pesticides prohibited in the EU are permitted in the United States.

In 2005, a study evaluating the health and environmental costs of pesticides use in the US estimated it to be $9.6 billion, annually.

Lobbying for lower standards

For obvious reasons, the chemical and pesticide industries prefer the US approach. This is why notorious lobby groups such as the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) and the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) use the TTIP negotiations, a potential EU-US trade deal, to attack the EU's precautionary approach.

CEFIC, which includes major players such as Bayer, BASF, Dow Europe, and Honeywell among its ranks, spent more than €10 million on lobbying activities in the EU in 2015 alone, with an overall budget of €40 million.

While industry efforts to lobby over EU policies are old news, the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations have opened the floodgates for business demands. The corporate goal in TTIP is clear: to remove discrepancies in laws and protection levels across the Atlantic - in short, quicker profits for companies and higher risks for consumers.

Along these lines, while admitting differences between the European and US systems, CEFIC's then Director General claimed in 2015 that "both result in a high level of protection of consumers, health and the environment". But of course the wide discrepancy between the chemicals and pesticides permitted in the US versus the far fewer allowed in the EU tells a very different story.

At the heart of industry's wish list for TTIP is the provision of 'regulatory co-operation'. Not only would this mechanism allow existing regulations to be attacked but it would ultimately give big business a voice in the very early stages of the regulatory process in both the EU and the US and thus directly override democratic decision-making.

Post-Brexit, the UK could be even more vulnerable ...

While it appears that British citizens won't have to worry about TTIP anymore, they must still remain alert to corporate lobbying that counters their interests. As one of the more agribusiness-friendly countries in Europe, before the June 2016 referendum Britain had been targeted by lobbyists to continue to support their position in the EU.

For instance, following a "very constructive meeting with the industry (NFUS, AIC, Crop Protection Association) ... to discuss the potential loss of pesticides", the Scottish Environment Minister made a submission to the Commission "asking that no pesticides be removed from approval before conducting a full impact assessment."

By leaving the EU, Britain could enter into negotiations on new investment and free trade agreements - and here is where it really gets dangerous for consumer and environmental protection, as well as for democratic values.

Launching a new series of large-scale free trade deal negotiations could open a whole new playing field for all sorts of corporate lobbying activities - with severe impacts on the British social and environmental legislation.

Today more than ever, free trade deals are being used by large companies and multinationals to shape the economic world order according to their interests. This comes at the expense of a sustainable and fair trade system that places the needs of consumers, citizens and the environment on equal footing with the demands of big business. 



Action: Four European organisations have launched the 'Democracy for Sale Awards', in order to expose the behind-the-scenes business lobby. You are invited to 'honour' the lobby groups that have been most successful in co-writing the TTIP. Please vote now: help to expose the worst corporate offenders and fight for democratic decision making in Europe, in Britain and around the world.

Lora Verheecke & Laura Große are researchers and campaigners for Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based lobby watchdog. Both work on European free trade agreements such as TTIP and CETA.

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