The Presumption of Innocence – ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – makes you think of the noble legal system of many modern nations, right? Does it also make you think about industrial chemicals? If you live in the U.S. or Canada, it should. In the U.S., an industrial chemical is presumed safe unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can prove significant harm to humans or wildlife. This places the burden of proof of a chemical’s harm onto the shoulders of Government, aka the public. Although our Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA; 1976), gives the EPA powerful regulating ability, only five chemicals have ever been regulated in the 30 years of TSCA; PCBs, CFCs in aerosols, asbestos, dioxins, and chromium 6 (remember Erin Brockavich?).
This burden of proof stuff is no joke. To rule against a chemical, the EPA must show the chemical presents an “unreasonable risk”. What is unreasonable? To determine this risk, the EPA must evaluate not only health and environmental effects and exposure, but also the benefits of the chemical, the availability of substitutes, and the economic effects of a rule. (Cause if 100,000 Americans/yr get cancer from it, it might still be ‘worth it’). Whew! And all that with taxpayer money! No wonder very few of the 75,000 chemicals on the TSCA inventory have ever been assessed directly for harm. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the risks associated with all of those chemicals? And might it make more sense for industry to shoulder the substantial costs of chemical risk assessment?
The non-profit Environmental Defense recently published a pretty cool document in conjunction with Pollution Probe of Canada. Not That Innocent: A comparative analysis of Canadian, European Union and United States policies on industrial chemicals does just that, highlighting best practices in chemical control policies, mainly applauding REACH, the new E.U. legislation that came online in June to Register, Evaluate, Authorize and restrict CHemical substances. One of the great aspects of REACH is that the burden of proof is shifted back onto industry ala ‘if you want to make money using that chemical you’ve gotta show us it’s safe’ and the job of Government is just to oversee that process. On the Environmental Defense website I was able to watch & listen to an overview of the report – nice way to learn how we deal with chemicals in the U.S. compared to other modern nations.