Green Chemistry’s March of the Ostriches

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In an age of routine life-enhancing improvements, self-appointed public policy ostriches are spreading myths as divorced from reality as those surrounding the ostrich. The myths envelop man-made chemicals. Advocates wave an innocent-looking banner extolling “green chemistry,” which in reality involves government second guessing decisions made within the private sector to force industry to make more “environmentally sound” or “green” products. This movement has succeeded in pressing its anti-chemicals agenda in numerous state capitals, and is trying to take it nationwide.

Advocates of regulation to advance green chemistry suggest it serves the “precautionary principle,” which calls on companies to prove their products are safe before they are allowed on the market. It may sound reasonable, but since no one can prove 100 percent safety, precautionary policies grant government agencies the power to regulate arbitrarily, targeting products for elimination based largely on political, rather than scientific, grounds.

For decades, self-styled “public health” activist groups and the news media have fed Americans a diet of doubts and fears about the chemicals and substances that have made life better in the developed world. Contrary to their precautionary rhetoric, the level of danger that surrounds the modern American continues to decline across the board. U.S. life expectancy keeps rising—more than a year and a half over the last decade, according to the World Health Organization. Despite news that chemicals pose a serious risk, both cancer mortality and incidence levels have declined as mankind has increased their use.

Nonetheless, with their heads buried in the proverbial sand, lawmakers around the nation are responding to the hype with a host of laws and regulations. A November 2010 report by the Safer States Coalition, a leading green chemistry proponent organization, boasts: “In the last eight years, both the number of state chemical laws and the number of states passing toxic chemical reforms have tripled.” A major goal of these laws is the replacement of products that have stood the test of time and prevailed among others in the marketplace.

Government-directed green chemistry is based on the assumption that market processes fail consumers by releases of needlessly dangerous or environmentally damaging products. Green chemistry advocates argue that, with a little direction, government can fix this problem. Yet the assumption that regulators can find less risky alternatives is unrealistic.

Truly “green”—that is, efficient and safe—innovations rarely are driven by government. They are the natural outcome of the competitive market which “green” policies seek to control. The market development of chemical products is also naturally “green.” After all, chemical companies do not succeed if they poison their customers. They succeed by providing high-quality, safe products their customers want. The unique nature of chemicals demands that they conduct the research to ensure their products perform in a safe manner.

Given market incentives to ensure product safety, companies join associations of various kinds to share information and self-regulate. The ubiquitous nature of such standard-setting organizations underscores the role that incentives play in ensuring product safety and quality. Today, chemicals are covered under numerous voluntary regulatory programs for consumer products around the world including cosmetics, plastics, and chemicals in general. Unfortunately, government regulations can hinder such voluntary standards systems and replace them with fewer, less effective programs.

A complex society needs simple rules built on bedrock principles. With the green chemistry movement’s anti-chemical agenda proceeding in so many states, we have begun to overturn one of our cherished principles by giving government the authority to clog scientific inquiry without convincing evidence. At the heart of the matter, Americans must understand and tolerate reasonable amounts of risk. It is in our economic and ecological interest to let inventors make discoveries outside the widening orbit of legal and governmental overregulation.