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European plan to test chemical products irks US

The European Parliament will debate a proposal to apply the 'precautionary principle' to 30,000 widely used chemicals.

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An ambitious European plan to make chemicals manufacturers test their products for safety before selling them has industrialists and the US government up in arms in what promises to be a major transatlantic battle over health regulations.

The plan, which obliges producers and importers to show that their chemicals are not harmful to consumers or the environment, has been condemned by critics as excessively costly. Supporters say the move is essential to protect European citizens' health against the insidious effects of dangerous chemicals in household and other goods.

Behind the dispute lies a growing controversy over how to measure risk, as Europe applies ever greater precaution while US regulators stick to more traditional cost-benefit analyses, accepting some risk if eliminating it would be too expensive.

The European approach has already sparked dispute: Washington has decried the European Union's 1988 ban on US beef containing growth hormones and its five-year-old ban on new imports of genetically modified food. Now the European Parliament is set to debate a proposal applying the precautionary principle to 30,000 widely used chemicals.

As sperm counts and fertility rates fall in industrialized countries, and cancer rates rise, researchers have begun pointing the finger at toxic chemicals found in deodorants, cosmetics, and furnishings treated with flame retardants and stain-resistant agents. Many of them may build up in the human body over the years, with unknown consequences.

"It is just common sense that all chemicals should be tested and authorized," says Jill Evans, a member of the European Parliament who discovered recently that her blood contains 33 of the 71 toxic chemicals she was tested for. "People think they can't be contaminated if they are careful and live healthy lives: We know now that chemicals we use for very good reasons do have an effect on our bodies."

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