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REACH and the Perils of Precaution

Today, the European Parliament voted a final time on the new regulation of Europe's chemical industry. With this vote the proposal is almost certain to become law when the European Council of Ministers votes next week. Called REACH—which stands for registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals—this legislation is based on the precautionary principle, and it represents the most substantial application of this principle ever. The principle essentially allows regulators to limit the freedom to sell technologies simply because a technology might have adverse impacts. Regulators need not demonstrate any actual harm before taking existing products off the market or to preventing introduction of new ones. They can just do it. Imagine a world in which all laws are based on perceived potential for harm. In this world you could be put in jail because you might commit a crime. You could be prevented from eating your holiday meal because it might make you fat. And the government could allow lenders to foreclose on your home because you might default on your payments. Not a pretty picture. Nonetheless, Senator Frank Lautenberg is expected to use REACH as a model for reforms to U.S. chemical laws. Apparently, bad lawmaking is much like disease; it tends to spread. Working with the Hayek Institute in Brussels, CEI has documented why this principle, and REACH's application in particular, is dangerous to freedom and human progress. We also show that the program is unlikely to deliver any benefits.