At their headquarters in Santa Clara, researchers at Coherent Inc., the world's largest laser manufacturer, are wrestling with an environmental law that is transforming their entire product line.
Soon, everything produced at the Bay Area company -- even the tiniest microchip inside its high-powered lasers that fly on NASA satellites and bleach jeans sold at boutiques -- must be free of lead, mercury and four other hazardous substances.
The mandate that has Coherent and other American electronics companies scrambling doesn't come from lawmakers in Washington, or even Sacramento.
Instead, it was crafted 5,000 miles away, in Brussels, the capital of the European Union.
Europe's law, governing any product with a battery or a cord, has spawned a multibillion-dollar effort by the electronics industry to wean itself from toxic compounds.
"This is the first time we've encountered something like this on such a global scale," said Gerry Barker, a vice president of Coherent, whose lasers are used to create master copies of Hollywood films, test the safety of car tires, imprint expiration dates on soda cans and more.
And the electronics rule is only the beginning.
Already, Europe is setting environmental standards for international commerce, forcing changes in how industries around the world make plastic, electronics, toys, cosmetics and furniture. Now, the EU is on the verge of going further -- overhauling how all toxic compounds are regulated. A proposal about to be debated by Europe's Parliament would require testing thousands of chemicals, cost industries several billion dollars, and could lead to many more compounds and products being pulled off the market.
Years ago, when rivers oozed poisons, eagle chicks were dying from DDT in their eggs and aerosol sprays were eating a hole in the Earth's ozone layer, the United States was the world's trailblazer when it came to regulating toxic substances. Regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats controlled the White House, the United States was the acknowledged global pioneer of tough new laws that aimed to safeguard the public from chemicals considered risky.
Today, the United States is no longer the vanguard. Instead, the planet's most stringent chemical policies, with far-reaching impacts on global trade, are often born in Stockholm and codified in Brussels.
"In the environment, generally, we were the ones who were always out in front," said Kal Raustiala, a professor of international law at UCLA. "Now we have tended to back off while the Europeans have become more aggressive regulators."
Europe has imposed many pioneering and aggressive -- some say foolish and extreme -- bans meant to protect people from exposure to hundreds of industrial compounds that have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm and other health effects. Recent measures adopted by the European Union have taken aim at chemicals called phthalates, which make nail polishes chip-resistant, and compounds added to foam cushions that slow the spread of fires in furniture.
EU's Big Market
Many companies, even those based in America, follow the European rules because the EU, with 25 countries and 460 million people, surpasses even the United States as a market. Rather than lose access to it, many companies redesign their products to meet European standards. For example, Revlon, L'Oreal and Estee Lauder have said that all their products meet European directives that control the ingredients of cosmetics. And U.S. computer companies say they are trying to remove lead and other substances banned in the EU from everything they sell.
As the EU emerges as the world's toughest environmental cop, its policies increasingly are at odds with Washington.
Among the compounds now phased out or restricted in Europe but still used in high volumes in the United States are the pesticides atrazine, lindane and methyl bromide; some phthalates, found in beauty products, plastic toys and other products; and nonylphenol in detergents and plastic packaging. In animal tests, those compounds have altered hormones, caused cancer, triggered neurological changes in fetuses or damaged a newborn's reproductive development.
The "biggest single difference" between EU and U.S. policy is in the regulation of cosmetics, said Alastair Iles, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. Cosmetics sold in Europe cannot contain about 600 substances that are allowed in U.S. products, including, as of last September, any compound linked to cancer, genetic mutations and reproductive effects.
Driving EU policy is a "better safe than sorry" philosophy called the precautionary principle. Following that guideline, which is codified into EU law, European regulators have taken action against chemicals even when their dangers remain largely uncertain.
Across the Atlantic, by contrast, U.S. regulators are reluctant to move against a product already in use unless a clear danger can be shown. A chemical, they say, is innocent until proven guilty.