Why does the U.S. make and sell products to the American public with toxic chemicals and heavy metals banned in the same products in the European Union (EU)? Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power by Mark Schapiro, author of Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World, examines this question and the ramifications it has for the United States’ role as a global power and as a leader in environmental protection and the health of Americans. The truth is that we are no longer the leaders in laws designed to protect the environment that we once were. The EU has taken over that role, demanding that American companies change their practices or “give up selling to Europeans.”
Businesses fight tooth and nail here to not have to change their products and hire lobbyists to persuade Congress of the safety of their products. Mounting evidence of such things as “rising rates of infertility, increasing rates of endocrine-related malformations, and neurological disorders” caused by exposure to chemicals has caused the EU to implement new standards. The three Ps that count in today’s world when it comes to business are Plastic, Poison and Power. American businesses have learned that if they want to continue selling their products in the EU, they need to change their practices and ingredients to make their products safer. Yet they still are legally allowed to sell the same products in the United States with toxic chemicals, fully knowing there are safer alternatives to them which they use for conducting business outside of the U.S.
A book that deals with subject matter like toxic chemicals and how they effect Americans and business practices might have turned out dull and boring in less capable hands, but Mark Schapiro makes his cautionary and alarming case dramatically. You want to keep reading on despite (or because of) being frightened at the risks to which companies are willing to put the health of the American people just to protect their bottom lines. Sometimes it seems as if the real reason they lobby and don’t want to change their products is because they are being stubborn, since they don’t lose money by having to alter their products for the EU; rather, they increase their sales and profits.
One example of a dramatic incident in the book is when engineers from Silicon Valley were asked by the European Union to come up with safe alternatives to six chemical and metals (“mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium, and two chemical flame retardants called polybrominated biphenyl flame retardants”) used in electronic products They had six months to solve this problem and make their products recyclable, or the EU would stop buying from them. With around $150 billion at stake - “one-third of the high-tech industry’s $500 billion in annual sales” - the engineers from companies like Dell, Apple, Sun and Intel had their backs against the wall and had to come up with alternatives to using the six substances quickly or lose a lot of money. Failure wasn’t an option.
Exposed is the stuff of the wildest conspiracy theories, but everything that’s discussed in the book about the double standards of U.S. companies is the truth. Beware cosmetics, for they often contain “known or possible carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins.” And the soft plastic toys and teething rings your babies chew on? They may contain phthalates, an ingredient to make the plastic softer and more pliable, which has been linked to hypospadias in male infants and future reproductive problems.
The U.S. is a capitalistic society. Big businesses are in business, of course, to make profits - but it’s counter-productive to slowly kill your clients (though the cigarette industry continues to exist and thrive, despite multimillion-dollar judgments against the companies that make them). Most disconcerting in Exposed is reading that the remedies and alternatives U.S. companies use in order to continue doing business in the EU could be put into effect here, as well, but they generally aren’t. Many companies simply want to keep doing business as usual, seemingly without any qualms about the people their products might hurt over an extended period of time. If you want your eyes opened and would like to get an education about the hazardous chemicals all around you in your daily lives, Exposed is a must-read.