Heated chemicals debate continues with open letter to EU chief scientist

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Eighty-one scientists have sent a letter to the European Commission president's science advisor urging the EU executive to listen to 'science' before regulating endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can be found in everyday consumer products.

In the letter to Anne Glover, who advises Commission President José Manuel Barroso, scientists from both the EU and North America say that they are concerned because the Commission’s scientific committees have so far not been consulted on the Commission's upcoming strategy on endocrine disruptors, due in the autumn. 

"We are concerned that the approach proposed could rewrite well-accepted scientific and regulatory principles in the areas of toxicology and ecotoxicology without adequate scientific evidence justifying such a departure from existing practices," the authors write.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals mainly enter the environment through industrial and urban discharges. Human exposure can occur via the ingestion of food, dust and water, inhalation of gases and particles in the air, and skin contact with plastics and rubbers.

Known examples of endocrine-disrupting chemicals include phthalates (a plastic-softener), brominated flame retardants (often used in household textile or furniture) and metals like lead and mercury.

Some endocrine-disrupting chemicals occur naturally, while synthetic varieties can be found in pesticides, electronics, personal care products and cosmetics. They can also be found as additives or as contaminants in food.

Exchange of letters

A report by the Stockholm-based professor Åke Bergman, published in February, linked endocrine-disrupting chemicals with rising levels of cancer along with increasing brain, thyroid and reproductive problems.

This prompted 89 public health scientists from around the world to sign the 2013 Berlaymont Declaration on endocrine disruptors in May.

The declaration said that the Europe-wide rate of increase in endocrine-related diseases cannot be explained by genetics or lifestyle choices alone.

After the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific opinion distinguishing between harmless endocrine-active substances and endocrine disruptors, the anti-pesticides organisation PAN Europe sent an open letter to Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, stating that EFSA was trying to create regulatory loopholes for the industry.

In the reply to PAN Europe, Borg's cabinet backed EFSA by saying that EFSA's definition is internationally recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is in accordance with EU law.

Ignoring EFSA

However, in the newest letter to Glover, scientists say the Commission is ignoring crucial parts of EFSA's opinion which is "disturbing".

The scientists write that if the Commission adopts a policy stating that it is impossible to define a safe limit or threshold for a substance classified as an endocrine disruptor, this would reverse current scientific and regulatory practices.

They worry that the Commission's approach on endocrine disruptors will end up applying to all chemicals, thus discarding scientific basis and support by scientists on risk assessment.

"We have noted your important interventions on the need for scientific evidence to be at the heart of EU policy and are therefore writing to urge your review of the emerging policy to ensure that the opinion of relevant scientific committees and member states authorities are taken into account," the scientists write in the letter to Glover.

Timeline: 
  • Autumn 2013: Commission to publish new strategy on endocrine disruptors.
External links: 

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