National Review  [Printer-friendly version]
December 12, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Here once again is our favorite critic of
foresight and forecaring, Henry Miller of Stanford University. Europe
is about to exercise free democratic choice and require corporations
to provide information about the chemicals they make or use. Henry
says this is "draconian" and "anti-science."]

By Henry I. Miller

The European Union's Council of Ministers is expected to vote soon on
the proposed chemicals regulation called REACH, an acronym for
Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals. Before they
decide to burden faltering European economies with yet more unwise
regulation, they should digest the findings of Europe's Global REACH,
a study released recently by the Hayek Institute in Brussels. It
concludes that REACH will harm Europe and its trade partners
economically -- and there is no convincing evidence of health or
environmental benefits.

REACH would extend to all chemicals produced in or imported into
Europe the bogus "precautionary principle," which holds that if the
evidence about a product, technology, or activity is any way
incomplete, it should be prohibited or at least stringently regulated.

Potential risks should be taken into consideration before proceeding
with any new activity or product, to be sure, whether it is the
placing of a power station or the introduction of a new flame
retardant. But what is missing from precautionary calculus is an
acknowledgment that even when technologies and products introduce new
risks, most confer net benefits -- that is, their use reduces other,
far more serious, hazards. Vaccines have occasional side effects, for
example, but they confer net benefits. The danger in the precautionary
principle is that it focuses exclusively on the risks, which are often
purely hypothetical, and diverts consumers and policymakers from
seeking possible solutions to known, significant threats to human
health. Its overall impacts may in fact be net-negative.

The costs of REACH's precautionary approach will be prodigious. The
European Commission's own estimates range up to 5.2 billion, but
according to a study produced by the Nordic Council, the price tag
could be as much as 28 billion euros. This higher estimate includes
both direct and indirect costs, and assumes that the latter may amount
to as much as 2.5 times the former.

REACH's supporters maintain that businesses can absorb this high price
tag easily, but the Hayek Institute analysis offers a very different
view. Its author, Competitive Enterprise Institute scholar Angela
Logomasini, points out that cost estimates that are favorable to REACH
are incomplete, fail to consider a host of direct costs, and often
completely neglect the indirect costs.

Moreover, REACH's advocates ignore its disproportionately harsh impact
on small businesses and businesses in the newer EU nations. A study
conducted by consulting firm KPMG on behalf of the European Commission
concludes: "The heaviest burden will be on small and mid-sized
enterprises which cannot consistently fulfill the REACH requirements
and so it is predicted that most of them may face financial troubles,
may be taken over by bigger ones, or even shut down."

These prospects should raise serious concerns for Europeans. Small and
mid-sized firms represent more than 99 percent of EU businesses, and
account for two thirds of the jobs. The imposition of REACH will
increase unemployment and diminish competition -- which will lead to
less innovation and higher prices.

Are there offsetting advantages to this draconian regulation? In a
review of the benefits claimed for REACH, Logomasini shows that the
studies that purport to demonstrate benefits depend more on
unsupported assumptions and wishful thinking than on science or logic.
The Commission's only study of likely benefits from REACH, conducted
by Risk and Policy Analysis Limited (RPA) in 2003, addresses
occupational exposure to chemicals and attempts to estimate the extent
to which REACH would reduce health problems among workers. However, it
is based on sketchy, incomplete, and inconsistently collected data
assembled from a handful of member governments, all of which is is of
questionable relevance to REACH. [Actually, the EU commissioned more
than one study of the costs and benefits of REACH.--RPR editors]

The RPA report explicitly assumes that problems related to currently
known chemical causes will be addressed by existing laws, while REACH
will prevent currently unknown health problems from chemicals. But if
these cases are unknown, how can we know they are caused by chemicals
or are even work-related? Obvious errors and insufficient
documentation in the report only compound problems with the study,
which makes no mention of having been peer reviewed.

The deeply flawed RPA report does offer persuasive evidence of one
thing: The Burger King Principle -- "you get it your way" -- is alive
and well in Europe. Some consultants will serve up whatever conclusion
the Commission orders.

REACH's presumed benefits are based on the assumption that testing
chemicals, filing paperwork, and pursuing politically correct product
bans will somehow reduce cancer rates. But as the Hayek Institute
analysis makes clear, the vast majority of cancers are not related to
chemicals. According to the World Health Organization, the major
preventable causes are tobacco use, diet, and infections, which
account for 75 percent of cancer cases worldwide. WHO bases these
findings on a landmark study conducted by scientists Richard Doll and
Richard Peto, which concluded that all environmental pollution might
amount to only as much as 2 percent of cancers.

In the interest of free markets and economic growth, we need global
regulatory policies that make scientific sense and that encourage
innovative research and development. But by promoting the
precautionary principle, EU politicians are performing a disservice.
The only winners will be the European apparatchiks who will enjoy
additional power, and the anti-science activists who will have
succeeded in erecting yet more barriers to the use of superior
technologies and useful products.


Henry I. Miller, M.D., is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover
Institution and a former official at the FDA, 1979-1994. Barron's
selected his most recent book, The Frankenfood Myth, one of the 25
Best Books of 2004.