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Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products

Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products Mark Schapiro Chelsea Green, 224 pp., $22.95

book coverPick up your laptop and go into the bathroom. Close toilet lid, sit down, open laptop. Pick up nearest personal care product, read label. Search for first of two dozen 11-syllable ingredients like, say, methylchloroisothiazolinone, in the Environmental Working Group's online database of chemical safety information. Drop personal care product in horror after several ingredients turn up as "known human carcinogen," "known human immune system toxicant," or "possible human developmental toxicant." Pick up next item, repeat.

One hour later: Find that your daily grooming regimen sits in the wastebasket. Mood soured, ask self: Why am I doing this?

Answer: Because your government is not doing it for you.

That may be the case here in the United States, but as Mark Schapiro argues in Exposed, that's merely because we're fast becoming the global laggards when it comes to environmental health protection. Not only are Americans routinely exposed to hazardous man-made chemicals through the consumption and use of personal care products, food, toys, cars, and computers, but many of the manufacturers selling those products to us are making safer versions of the very same items abroad, to be sold to Europeans, Japanese, and even our neighbors to the south, in Mexico--a country not otherwise known for its stringent environmental standards.

But as Schapiro tells it, nobody wants our stuff anymore--at least not the stuff we produce to be used by our own citizens. Why? Because other countries, including those in the European Union, have both recycling and safety requirements that we do not have: Most components in electronics products, for instance, must be reusable and free of substances such as lead and mercury.

Some of the fault lies in the cost/benefit analyses that U.S. regulatory agencies typically apply to matters of consumer health and safety, weighing what it would cost industry to eliminate this substance against the cost to human health of not eliminating it. By contrast, European policy makers are generally guided by the so-called precautionary principle: How do you ensure that no one is harmed by this toxic substance?

Consequently, the European Union has banned many of the chemicals that regularly appear in popular personal care products in the United States, basing its decisions on studies largely conducted, ironically, by American scientists, and even by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Safety concerns aside, it would seem to make plain economic sense for American corporations selling their products abroad simply to make the same products for everyone. That's what the Electronics Industries Alliance, a U.S. trade association, argued before Congress in 2006 when several states were trying to pass their own versions of the E.U.'s safety requirements. As one alliance representative told Schapiro, the electronics industry "would rather have one relatively stringent global standard than sixteen or seventeen different standards." In other words, spending $20 billion to comply with new standards would be a small price for electronics manufacturers to pay to ensure that foreign markets remain open to their wares, worth almost a trillion dollars a year. Nevertheless, Congress was not interested in adopting the international standard. Why? Unfortunately, Schapiro never makes this clear.

The case of the personal care industry is particularly baffling. Schapiro met with a Procter & Gamble executive who cited consumer preference as the reason for leaving phthalates--known endocrine disruptors--in nail polishes sold to U.S. customers while different formulations without them were sold abroad. When phthalates were eventually removed from those very same products in 2007, Schapiro went back to his Procter & Gamble source, who offered the following explanation for the time lag: manufacturers feared that consumers would ask why the ingredients weren't pulled sooner--and sue.

Such revelations are distressing, and Schapiro has done us a great service in his reporting. But one of the book's shortcomings is its failure to explain adequately why some industries are ready and willing to move toward more protective safety standards while others are not. U.S. companies continue to adhere doggedly to shortsighted policies that will ultimately come back around to bite them where it hurts the most--in their bottom line.

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >