Mark Schapiro is the editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. His new book, "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power," argues that U.S. business is becoming less competitive because of our lower environmental regulations.
CW: Much of your book seems to concern debates happening in California.
MS: California has been beginning to align itself more closely with Europe on a whole array of issues. That includes the electronic industry. One chapter ends in an ironic description of how the very bill that American companies are willing to follow in Europe they're opposing in California. What Europe has demonstrated is that by taking a more long-term view of how products are created and trying to diminish the long-term side effects of hundreds of products, they have reduced the public health effects and had great public health success doing it.
The California law governing the chemical content of electronics is literally based on the EU law for the acceptable levels of lead and chromium. That's probably the first time a foreign government's law has been cited in an American law. They're jumping over the heads of Washington.
So far there has been no federal challenge of California's fairly minimal electronics regulations. It will be interesting to see what happens with the phthalate bans. Now you have the Green Chemistry initiative, which has had a rough road. It's pretty clear that Schwarzenegger's whole attempt to position himself as the "green governor" hasn't really been challenged by the major political players.
CW: What are the implications of this change for the tech industry in California?
MS: They're enormous for the U.S. electronics industry, which is headquartered in California. The European electronics market is about $500 billion a year. What is a brand-new development is that the very contents of those devices can no longer contain toxic contaminants. For years the engineers in Silicon Valley never had to consider what would happen to the insides of their machines. It was somebody else's problem. I sat down with engineers in 2006 and you could see it on their faces. The major market in the world was starting to index the toxins contained in their machines. For the first time, they had to start considering what happens when their machines start to leak.
At first they were like "What the heck are those people in Brussels doing?" That reaction was common until 2006, when stuff started to be sent back. Because our government has been in retreat from these controls, there is no corresponding signal. Ironically, Californians and Americans in general may be benefitting.
CW: Talk about the implications of a lack of federal standards for U.S. companies.
MS: Without federal standards you have chaos. Even the electronics industry has started asking for standards at the federal level. I think they are most fearful of being undercut by the "white box" manufacturers from China that have no regulations. On the chemical stuff, they are adapting their manufacturing processes of the EU. There is much more opposition to the idea that manufacturers should be responsible for the recycling and disposal of their own products. It's mandated in Europe, but American companies have been resisting it every step of the way.
CW: How did we end up in this situation?
MS: We've been moving backward while the rest of the world has been moving forward. There is a perception that most American political leaders have been holding onto that if we do something, the rest of the world will follow. This current administration, there is no way around it, has been in steady and aggressive retreat from environmental regulation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has reached a much higher level of awareness on the implications of chemicals. When it comes to protecting their citizens from toxins in products, we are on par with some of the least developed countries in the world. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for chemicals that are already banned elsewhere.
If a Democrat wins, some of this dynamic can change. But this isn't just the Bush administration. Even Al Gore, Mr. Environment himself, was involved in some efforts to relax regulations. But at least the Clinton administration established some basic level of support for environmental protection.
CW: Talk about the argument some companies have made that the U.S. legal system is holding them back from making changes.
The U.S. has been under no pressure to clean up its act for the last decade. But if you concede on one point, who knows that the next one is going to be. If you make the shift, you're admitting that what you used before is dangerous. There are legal implications. You'll never see a company saying, "We're following environmental regulations because they're safer."
CW: What effect have strict environmental policies have on the European economy?
MS: The EU is now the world's largest single market. What they do applies to 27 countries and almost 500 million people – a market that is much larger than the American market. This is a huge change in the status quo. The ruse we keep hearing is that this will lead to economic disruptions. As I show in the book, this is not the case. There is a certain initial investment, but the economic disruption doesn't happen. It's kind of mystifying, particularly with the phthalate bill because the alternatives are so clear. We're only trying to make companies do what they're already doing in Europe.