Europe ‘Reaches’ for Disaster

European regulatory officials have raised hostility to technological innovation to an art form. Their current medium of choice is the Precautionary Principle, which holds that as long as the evidence about the safety of a product, technology or activity is in any way incomplete, it should be prohibited or, at the least, heavily regulated.Supposedly a variation on the motherly admonition of “better safe than sorry,” the “principle” is not really one at all, but is only a fig leaf for questionable decision-making whose basis may be ideological or protectionist (or both).For example, responding to pressure from radical environmental groups that campaign relentlessly against the use of chemicals, the European Union has proposed a program called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH). REACH is far-reaching.Its registration requirement compels manufacturers and importers to submit information to a central database on hazard, exposure, and risk on 30,000 new and existing substances that are produced or imported in yearly quantities exceeding one metric ton. Evaluation requires regulators to assess risks for 5,000 substances that are produced or imported in yearly quantities exceeding 100 tons, and also for substances in lower quantities if they are “of concern.” The newly established European Chemicals Agency will then determine whether further testing is needed. Authorization, meanwhile, applies to substances of “very high concern,” for which specific permission would be required for certain uses. An estimated 1,400, or 5%, of registered substances will be subject to authorization.REACH would also require extensive and hugely expensive toxicity testing, not only of potentially nasty chemicals, but also of many that are innocuous. Many of the tens of thousands of targeted chemicals have been used routinely by both industry and consumers for decades, without any obvious harm. Reach is also applicable not only to the 30,000 specifically referenced chemicals, but also to the “downstream” products that contain these chemicals. It requires downstream users to carry out additional testing if the exposure or use of the product exceeds that foreseen by the manufacturer.Because chemical products are ubiquitous in automobiles, aircraft, home construction and furnishings, and workplaces, REACH reaches deeply and intrusively into the life of every European. Testing chemicals for which there is evidence or suspicion of toxicity is sensible, but testing all chemicals–including those for which there is no evidence of any harm even at high exposures–only diverts attention and resources from more dangerous compounds. Instead of focusing on the development of new, innovative products, corporate scientists will be preoccupied with gratuitous testing of chemicals known to be safe in normal use.As is inevitably the case with such one-size-fits-all regulation, the expense will be monumental: The European Commission itself has estimated that the direct and indirect costs of the new system will be €18 to €32 billion, and one independent assessment predicts that the regulation could reduce the EU's GDP by as much as three percentage points over the next decade.The language of the REACH proposal suggests that any adverse impact from a chemical substance, including alleged harm from a substance contained in a finished good or article, is sufficient to subject the manufacturer, importer and/or downstream user to liability. Placing the burden of proof on those who manufacture or use chemicals, instead of on those who claim to be injured, will have ominous implications for liability suits.The imposition of such unreasonable requirements has ominous consequences for outside companies that wish to export to the European market. Worse still, the EU is attempting to secure acceptance of the precautionary principle in international agreements and treaties.In the interest of economic growth, we need global regulatory policies that make scientific sense and that encourage innovative research and development. But by promoting the Precautionary Principle, and by exporting their own version of unscientific and inconsistent regulation, EU politicians are performing a disservice. The only winners will be the European apparatchiks who will enjoy additional power, and the anti-science activists who will have succeeded in erecting yet more barriers to the use of superior technologies and useful products.Dr. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />