The fact that misguided government rules can damage economic growth is simply common sense, but the international debate regarding the use of silicone in consumer products illustrates just how harmful needless regulations can be to the economy.
Silicone compounds, “the blue-collar mainstays of the chemical industry,” are used in thousands of consumers products, from solar panels and marine paint to airbags and face creams. Three specific silicone compounds are commonly used in manufacturing: D4, D5 and D6.
In recent years, regulatory agencies around the world have scrutinized silicone compounds’ potential adverse effects to the environment and public health. Europe and some other countries, including the United States, have used different regulatory philosophies relating to evaluating scientific evidence, leading to dramatically different policies in the European Union than everywhere else.
The debate reflects two opposing regulatory philosophies.
The first approach is risk-based and focuses on quantitative scientific results in determining not only the potential harm a chemical might cause but the probability of actual harm. Regulators base their judgments on all the best available evidence.
In recent years, the governments of Canada and Australia, using this “weight-of-evidence” approach, comprehensively reviewed field tests, environmental monitoring data, and other scientific information, and concluded that silicone compounds pose a negligible risk to human health and the environment and that no product restrictions are needed.
A second approach to silicone regulation is guided by the precautionary principle that states that steps should be taken to regulate chemicals potentially capable of harm, even when no compelling causal evidence has been found.
Based on precautionary reasoning, the EU has recently cracked down on the use of D4 and D5 in “wash-off” personal care products, such as shampoos, and the regulation is now being challenged in the EU courts.
EU regulators are considering taking further steps to restrict D4 and D5 in household cleaning products and personal care products designed to be left on the body, and just last month they took the draconian step of designating them as substances of very high concern. This finding, based only on select observations, could lead to an effort to restrict silicone on a global level through the Stockholm Convention — a treaty the United States has signed but not ratified.
Industry rightly pushed back noting that the EU failed to consider real-world data that shows that D4, D5 and D6 pose little or no risk to the environment. Cosmetics Europe specifically claimed that EU regulators made the determination “despite the scientific evidence showing that these unique chemicals behave differently in the environment from what is predicted” under the EU legal criteria.
Tightening restrictions on silicone compounds without credible scientific evidence will drive up prices for consumers and force manufacturers to turn to lesser substitutes, without providing significant value to the environment. Without silicone, countless consumer products would be less safe, less durable, less efficient and more costly. Those are not good outcomes for consumers.
The EU’s decision to restrict the use of certain silicone compounds is bad enough, but the true danger is the precautionary principle’s broad application to chemical regulation. Requiring manufacturers to demonstrate the absence of environmental and health risks before incorporating a new compound into their products would have profound negative implications — reducing innovation in engineering new materials, costing jobs in the manufacturing sector, and ultimately depriving consumers of valuable products.
Silicone products help make automobiles safer on the road; they are prevalent in lifesaving medical equipment; they are a major ingredient in circuit boards in smartphones, computers and other important electronic components; and many other important applications.
Suppose the manufacturers of technological advances like LED light bulbs, solar panels and high-tech medical prosthetics (all of which contain silicone) had been forced to prove the lack of harm associated with their products. Progress would be put on hold, as consumers would wait to enjoy the benefits of these applications.
Government oversight of potentially toxic chemicals is important and appropriate, but it should be guided by sound science, not an overly cautious philosophy that hinders innovation, economic growth and, most important, consumer welfare.
Other countries developing their own chemicals management regimes should take note of the EU’s failed policy of precautionary regulation that allows relevant real-world data to be ignored.