The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products

By Vanja Petrovic

Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro discusses why companies that manufacture hazard-free products for the European Union often produce toxin-filled versions of the same items for America and developing countries.

American industry would have you believe that taking potentially hazardous and toxic chemicals out of everyday consumer products — removing phthalates from children’s toys and cancer-causing coal tar from hair dye — would damage our economy and result in a loss of American jobs. In his latest book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Mark Schapiro busts this myth and reveals the grim fact that some companies, whether American or international, often have two production lines: one that manufactures hazard-free products for the European Union and another that produces toxin-filled versions of the same items for America and developing countries.

Schapiro examines how America, once a leader in environmental protection, came to allow potentially toxic and mutagenic chemicals, banned by the EU, into everyday products. He also looks at how the EU’s economy — almost identical to that of America — continued to thrive even after these chemicals were banned, essentially “calling the bluff” of the American industry.

Schapiro, an investigative journalist for more than two decades, has built an award-winning track record with a focus on environmental and international affairs. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the Nation, Mother Jones, and the Atlantic Monthly. He has also been a correspondent on NOW with Bill Moyers, Frontline/World, and Marketplace.

AlterNet spoke with Schapiro in Berkeley at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where he is currently the editorial director.

Vanja Petrovic: Why did you choose to write this book now?

Mark Schapiro: I’ve been following the evolution of the European Union for some time now, just because I spent a lot of time working in Europe. I’ve been both a reporter and an editor in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe after 1989. And I spent quite a bit of time reporting in and out of the European Union. So, I watched as this entity, called the European Union, evolved into a functioning, powerful political and economic body.

What I think most Americans have missed is that, in the interim, this very powerful political force has emerged within Europe. It has enforced laws from Brussels that are applied now in 27 different countries.

Traditionally, the United States has been the single most powerful economic force in the world — that’s what we’ve seen until now. Suddenly, the EU has a bigger economy than the United States of America. The EU exports more goods to the rest of the world than the United States of America. The EU has a higher GNP than the United States of America.

Now, I think, we are in a historic period. There’s an enormous historic shift that’s going on right now. And that shift, when historians look back on this time period, they’re going to look at this enormous tectonic shift in international influence and international power. What they’re going to see is a kind of dramatically dwindling American influence, and that’s partly a result of the foreign policy of the current administration, and it’s also partly a result of the sheer, cold economic numbers, in which the United States is no longer the only dominant economic force in the world. That shift has enormous implications, and I think it’s one of the biggest untold stories of the 21st century. What I wanted to look at is what the environmental implications of that shift are.

Petrovic: What is the message behind this book?

Schapiro: The environmental battles in the United States have been kind of repeated over 20 years, and it’s the same battle over and over with different ingredients. The environmental community says, “Take this chemical out of this because it’s dangerous,” and the industry says, “One, it’s not dangerous, and two, it’s not economical, and we’ll fall out of business, and Americans are going to lose their jobs.” And this goes back and forth over and over again — it’s like Kabuki theater.

So, for the first time what you have is an economic power that’s the equivalent of the United States — it’s the equivalent in terms of affluence, in terms of education, in terms of overall sophistication and overall development — which is saying, “No, we can actually take these particular toxic chemicals out of these products, out of our computers, out of our pajamas, out of our cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy.”