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November/December 2010

The Right Question

James A. Thomas, President, ASTM InternationalUsing the Best Standard for the Job

Finding and choosing the right standard may not always be easy, but it’s something people do all the time. There is no secret to making the right choice. It is done by asking the right question: Will it meet my needs? Consider the case of ASTM E1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process. Very simply put, it is a practice for identifying the presence of certain contaminants in land that is for sale. E1527 applies to commercial real estate only, and it was originally intended for use in the United States. It is the only standard in existence with such a level of specificity and detail.

Let’s examine this standard’s credentials. It has its roots in U.S. law,1 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has selected it to serve as the basis of a technical regulation.2 Standards that are used as the basis of technical regulations are talked about with regularity on this page, usually in the context of the WTO/TBT3 committee’s guidelines for the development of international standards. Most of the TBT guidelines are principles that ASTM International has espoused since its inception in 1898; others have been developed over time.4 Today, ASTM’s principles for developing international standards and those of the WTO are identical.5 In other words, E1527 was developed by a consensus process that is in accordance with WTO/TBT principles.

The TBT guidelines point the way to a fair, open, consensus-based, inclusive method of standards development. As a member of the world community of standards suppliers, ASTM International is committed to them. The WTO imprint on a development process inspires confidence in the standard. It says this standard was developed in a way that is sanctioned by the bulk of the world’s trading countries. It is the imprint that all ASTM standards bear whether or not they are used in technical regulations.

But back to E1527. The ASTM committee that developed E1527 — E50 on Environmental Assessment, Risk Management and Corrective Action — has members from 20 countries. A good number of these technical experts are from Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. At this moment in time, companies in Korea, Japan and Taiwan are using the Phase I standard, and interest in it is growing worldwide. Why? Or better yet, why not? The standard has been developed in an organization that is known worldwide. The committee responsible for it is infused with international technical perspectives and operates under TBT guidelines. All of these are good reasons for choosing E1527.

But why exactly did the companies in Asia choose this standard, particularly since it was related to a U.S. technical regulation? While they were undoubtedly aware of ASTM International and its reputation, and while they may have considered compliance with WTO principles in their selection process, what they have told us is that, U.S. regulations notwithstanding, the primary reason for their selection was that the protocol for conducting a site assessment in E1527 fit their needs. Period. Full stop. Indeed, the member governments of the WTO, like the companies in Asia, choose ASTM standards for the very same reason.6 One of the TBT guidelines draws us to that very criterion — it requires international standards to be effective and relevant. All that means is that they must be of exceptional technical quality and appropriate. They must fit the job and fit it well.

And E1527? Like many standards that start out to fulfill a national need, E1527 has grown beyond its U.S. roots to meet the needs of people in other countries. Because it has been developed according to TBT guidelines, we can be reasonably certain that it will not act as a barrier to trade. But we are absolutely certain that it has been chosen and will be chosen again because it will fill a need, and fill it well. And for those who have asked the right question, it will be the right standard.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

1. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
2. 40 CFR 312, Protection of Environment, Innocent Landowners, Standards for Conducting All Appropriate Inquiries.
3. World Trade Organization/Technical Barriers to Trade.
4. Such as the ASTM International memorandum of understanding program to aid developing nations.
5. Openness, transparency, impartiality and consensus, effectiveness and relevance, coherence and consideration of developing nations.
6. More than 5,000 ASTM International standards, from 110 committees, are used in regulation or adopted as national standards in at least 100 countries.

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