Hazardous to Your Health

As U.S. lawmakers mull over whether to restructure the nation’s health-care system via a “public option,” even the biggest advocates of government intervention should be careful what they wish for. Just look at Europe — not only the widespread health-care rationing, but also the European Union’s new chemicals policy, which was first enacted in 2005. It promised public health benefits at a reasonable price, but is likely to produce the opposite. Nearly everyone involved in the debate — from industry groups to animal-rights activists — blindly followed the EU’s lead and supported the new policy. Now that it is being implemented, even some supporters are starting to see that this law is a regulatory monster.

Referred to as REACH (which stands for “Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals”), the chemicals policy requires firms to submit data on thousands of chemicals to prove them safe. Negotiators made a few overtures to priority setting, but ultimately they created a program that includes even substances that have been on the market for many decades without showing any ill effects.

EU bureaucrats assured the world that this process would not be too complicated or expensive. Yet as implementation of REACH unfolds, even its supporters are getting anxious. In a recent Nature article, toxicologist Thomas Hartung and chemist Costanza Rovida lament: “It was expected that 27,000 companies would submit 180,000 pre-registrations on 29,000 substances. Instead, some 65,000 companies made more than 2.7 million pre-registrations for in excess of 140,000 substances. REACH aims to complete data collection on these substances by 2018.”

In our study on the topic, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Hayek Institute pointed out that there would be upwards of 73,000 chemicals to assess in just the first eleven years of the program. Hartung and Rovida suggest that the total number of substances will shrink from 140,000 pre-registrations to 68,000 after errors and duplicates are corrected. However, that’s a conservative estimate. The reality is that as new substances are developed, they too must be registered.

The EU’s ability to adequately study and draw conclusions about these substances is dismal. Before REACH, it took EU bureaucrats ten years to assess 27 substances under the old chemicals law. REACH is destined to be a massive bureaucratic exercise conducted in a sloppy and arbitrary fashion. It will allow random regulation because it is based on an arbitrary standard — the “precautionary principle.” Under this “principle,” regulators are free to regulate even when science is unable to verify that a problem exists. Since you can’t prove a negative, science essentially is always lacking, and regulators are always empowered.

Everyone stands to lose as prices grow for consumers, businesses fail under the weight of bureaucracy, and valuable products are removed from the marketplace. We will never know what life-saving, life-enhancing products were never developed because of REACH regulations, what small businesses were never created, and how many firms were forced to close shop. The global economy will be hurt, and so will people living on the margin around the world, particularly in developing countries.

Hartung and Rovida point out another victim: rodents. REACH is essentially a massive, gratuitous lab-animal program — requiring 20 times more animals for the research than estimated by EU officials. Hartung and Rovida note that REACH will require 54 million vertebrate animals and will carry a price tag of €9.5 billion ($13.5 billion) over ten years. As a point of comparison, they note that the EU used only 90,000 animals annually for testing new chemicals in the pre-REACH era.

Responsible science warrants the use of lab animals to find cures for diseases and determine causes. But REACH amounts to gratuitous killing, because the alleged benefits are farcical. Animal-rights activists — who eventually eased their opposition to REACH when EU bureaucrats assured them this would not happen — should be up in arms.

The major industry players in this debate should also be shocked, yet most went along with REACH like mice headed for testing labs. Many expressed support and sought only to minimize its impact with modest changes. Unfortunately, stupidity in politics has a propensity to repeat itself.

Many U.S. lawmakers think such regulatory monstrosities are workable, and they are looking to create a U.S. version of REACH. “REACH puts the burden on the chemical industry — where it should be — to show that their chemicals are safe,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) during hearings on this topic last spring. It is high time that more people began to look at bureaucracy with their eyes open. The European experience highlights the danger of regulatory overreach.