Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article accusing the administration of implementing “precautionary principle” policies in response to the Gulf oil spill disaster. The article dubbed the controversial theory of regulation the “paralyzing principle” explaining that the “principle holds that government should attempt to prevent any risk—regardless of the costs involved, however minor the benefits and even without understanding what those risks really are.”
While the drilling moratorium (and the underlying policies that drove drilling into ever-deeper waters emblematic of policymaking detached from comparative risk assessment), might be the most visible act of the administration’s precautionary mentality, this approach resonates throughout a number of regulatory actions.
For example, the EPA is currently in the process of devising a rulemaking to place certain chemicals on a blacklist without any established scientific criteria. This rulemaking would stigmatize certain safe chemicals, providing high costs to business and low—if any—benefits to public health or the environment. Ironically, this listing could actually pose a threat to public health with the removal of safe products from the marketplace.
EPA is asserting unprecedented authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to create a “chemicals of concern” list with a rulemaking under section 5(b)4. EPA has submitted to the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) a proposed rule for the listing of phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and bisphenol A. Currently, there is no established criteria for listing other than that the substance “may present a risk of injury to human health or the environment.” This brings almost every chemical substance into question—even chemicals that have already been studied and approved by U.S regulatory agencies.
Certain phthalates like DINP and DIDP have been reviewed and proven safe for use by multiple government agencies including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Toxicology Program. The arbitrary listing of these safe chemicals would send signals through the marketplace—increasing costs, decreasing performance, and negatively impacting competitiveness. Small businesses could even be forced to shut down due to false perceptions and a lack of confidence from consumers.
The unjustified listing of chemicals could also be dangerous. Manufacturers could be forced to adopt chemicals that are less studied and expose consumers to potentially unsafe substances. Listing would discourage the use of safe products in favor of relatively unknown substitutes.
Before moving forward with this costly rulemaking, EPA needs to establish a clear set the standards to determine actual harm. Failure to do so could result in serious unintended consequences.
Precautionary regulations are ineffective and stifle economic growth. This “better safe than sorry” approach does not make us any safer or better off, and could actually do just the opposite.