I’ve heard it said that in Germany, everything is forbidden unless it’s expressly allowed, and in the US, everything is allowed, unless it’s expressly forbidden. American culture tends to be focused on the individual, and the personal rights of the individual, and those rights and freedoms are often seen as applying to businesses as well. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is a great example. While it was revolutionary in the late 70’s, and was successful in removing lead from gasoline and paint and banning the use of PCBs, the chemical industry turns out approximately 700 new compounds every year, and currently the EPA has extensively studied only about 200 chemicals total. Companies are permitted to take their products out to market, and it’s up to the EPA to prove that a chemical is hazardous. Standards of toxicity are also high; even though it’s banned in 30 countries, asbestos is still legal in the US. This really shocked me as I researched this post; I had just assumed that it was banned.
The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (Lautenberg Bill) is currently working its way through congress, which would move the burden of proof onto the chemical companies to prove a compound was safe before it goes out to market. The bill would also make it easier for the EPA to ban chemicals outright. Surprisingly, the chemical industry is mostly on board with the provisions in the bill, due to the fact that some chemicals, recently shown harmful in some laboratory studies, have seen federal, state and municipal governments ban them independently (BPA is the best example). This creates a nightmare patchwork of regulations for chemical companies to try to navigate, and the consolidated federal guidelines in the Lautenberg bill are apparently seen as preferable.