Reducing exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals will benefit healthcare systems and economies as a whole, writes Christian Zahn.
Christian Zahn is president of the International Association of Mutual Benefit Societies (AIM), which represents health mutuals and insurance funds in Europe and worldwide.
On 28 February, the EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) is expected to vote on the Commission’s latest proposed scientific criteria for the identification of these chemicals.
Will those criteria be the right ones?
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are everywhere nowadays. They are probably linked to many diseases whose incidence is rising. That trend can no longer be ignored – it involves reduced fertility, adverse pregnancy outcomes, obesity and type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia.
Worse still, global rates of endocrine-related cancers have dramatically increased over the past decades. While such non-communicable diseases do indeed have both genetic and environmental components, the WHO itself recognises that increases in their rising incidence cannot solely be explained by genetics. Identifying the causative environmental factors is thus key to improving human health.
Reducing exposure to EDCs will have positive effects on public health and will benefit healthcare systems and economies as a whole. European policy must effectively address preventable causes of disease, including the reduction of exposure to endocrine disruptors. Population-wide health systems must be defended from the ever-rising costs of the chronic diseases EDCs can cause.
In June 2016 – three years later than legally required, the European Commission published a proposal for a set of scientific criteria to identify chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties. These criteria are required by, and will be used in, the implementation of the EU laws on Pesticides and Biocides. They will be central to other EU laws covering industrial chemicals (which end up in daily consumer items), personal care products (such as cosmetics), water quality, and others.
Unfortunately, the Commission’s original identification proposal and the subsequent revisions would fail to protect the public properly from chemicals which constitute a threat to human health. By setting an overly rigid and high level of proof required to ban EDCs, with wording that risks abandoning the usual ‘precautionary principle’, it damages the very purpose of the regulations.
On 21 December 2016, the European Commission proposed a major amendment to its criteria that would exempt identification for a whole set of endocrine disruptors. This amendment, said to be the fruit of the pesticide manufacturers’ lobby, luckily encountered opposition in the PAFF Committee and their vote was postponed.
On 28 February, the Commission gets another chance to propose a more appropriate set of criteria.
To control and enable proper prevention of exposure to harmful EDCs, these criteria need to enable the use of all existing evidence to identify EDCs, so that each chemical permitted for use in pesticides is harmless to humans, thereby respecting the precautionary principle. Very few epidemiological studies cover the area. Of the over 1300 chemicals known or suspected to be capable of interfering with endocrine systems, only a small fraction has been properly investigated and the great majority of the chemicals which are currently commercially used have not been tested at all for endocrine disruption effects.
It is therefore time for the Commission to come forward with a set of criteria that is based on sound scientific evidence and which establishes clear categories to enable ranking the substances according to the different weights of evidence.
Given that about 75% of all carcinogens identified so far under the EU legal framework are “presumed” to cause adverse effects, a better protection of public health from EDCs can only be achieved by applying the ‘precautionary principle’ and by including in the definition both those substances ‘known to’ and those ‘presumed to’ cause an adverse effect.
Neither should the application of the ‘precautionary principle’ be affected by trade agreements. Trade incentives should never be prioritised at the expense of public health priorities, nor rule out the EU’s commitment to high standards of healthcare and environmental protection.
Knowing that “zero” exposure is impossible, it is vital to limit hazards by empowering citizens to make healthier choices and to avoid unhealthy ones. It is also the Commission’s role to inform EU citizens and to raise public awareness of the issue. The publication of a series of evidence-based recommendations to populations and more particularly to vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and young children is another measure which would greatly contribute to public health.
The 28 February vote on the identification criteria is a defining opportunity in the process of reducing exposure to EDCs. The Commission must grab this chance to protect European citizens’ health and show that EU legislation is in the service of its people.
Read AIM’s declaration on EDCs, published today and written in close collaboration with the “Health and Environment Alliance” (HEAL).