As many as 31 pesticides with a value running into billions of pounds could have been banned because of potential health risks, if a blocked EU paper on hormone-mimicking chemicals had been acted upon, the Guardian has learned.
The science paper, seen by the Guardian, recommends ways of identifying and categorising the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that scientists link to a rise in foetal abnormalities, genital mutations, infertility, and adverse health effects ranging from cancer to IQ loss.
Commission sources say that the paper was buried by top EU officials under pressure from big chemical firms which use EDCs in toiletries, plastics and cosmetics, despite an annual health cost that studies peg at hundreds of millions of euros.
The unpublished EU paper says that the risks associated with exposure to even low-potency EDCs is so great that potency alone should not serve as a basis for chemicals being approved for use. Its proposed criteria for categorisations of EDCs – along with a strategy for implementing them – was supposed to have enabled EU bans of hazardous substances to take place last year.
But Commission officials say that under pressure from major chemical industry players, such as Bayer and BASF, the criteria were blocked. In their place, less stringent options emerged, along with a plan for an impact assessment that is not expected to be finalised until 2016.
“We were ready to go with the criteria and a strategy proposal as well but we we were told to forget about it by the secretary general’s office,” a Commission source told the Guardian. “Effectively the criteria were suppressed. We allowed the biocides and pesticides legislation to roll over.”
Last month, 11 MEPs complained in a cross-party letter to the health and food safety Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, about the EU’s failure to honour its mandate and adopt the EDC criteria.
This was supposed to have happened by the end of 2013, and is now the subject of court proceedings brought by Sweden, the European parliament and council.
But Catherine Day, the EU’s powerful secretary general, laid the blame for the delay on poor communication between the Commission’s health (Sanco) and environment (Envi) departments, which shared responsibility for the file.
“They were working in different directions, which made no sense so the secretariat-general did intervene to force them to do a joint impact assessment with the aim of coming up with one analysis on which the Commission could base itself,” she told the Guardian.
“The Commission is under no obligation to publish internal working papers,” another Commission spokesperson said. “As you know, the European Commission acts in full independence and in the general European interest.”
“We had a lot of arguments with Sanco,” a Commission source said. “At one point, the secretary general intervened to halt the process and then basically it was just stopped. We were told that we and Sanco had to bang our heads together. But when the two directorates eventually – and reluctantly – reached an agreement, even that was blocked by the secretary general.”
Angeliki Lyssimachou, an environmental toxicologist for Pesticides Action Network Europe (PAN), said: “If the draft ‘cut-off’ criteria proposed by the Commission had been applied correctly, 31 pesticides would have been banned by now, fulfilling the mandate of the pesticide regulation to protect humans and the environment from low-level chronic endocrine disrupting pesticide exposure.”
In place of the proposed identification of hormone-mimicking compounds, the EU’s current roadmap favours industry-supported options for potency-based measurements of EDCs. These would set thresholds, below which exposure to low-potency EDCs would be deemed safe, even if no comprehensive testing for longer-term effects on humans had been undertaken.
Industry and agricultural lobbies favour this approach, backed by the UK and some German ministries. They argue that the socio-economic effects of pesticide and biocide bans could be ruinous for farming communities.
One National Farmers’ Union study last year estimated that the withdrawal of crop protection products could cost the UK farming industry up to 40,000 jobs and a £1.73bn fall in profits, equal to 36% of current levels.
By comparison, a PAN study estimates that under the roadmap options currently being considered, no more than seven – and as few as zero – pesticides would ever be withdrawn.
Jean-Charles Bocquet, the director of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) said that in a “worst-case scenario,” his pesticides trade group believes that up to 60 products on the market could still be threatened with an endocrine-disrupting label, which would trigger their market withdrawal.
These products, many from the triazole family, represent over 40% of the European market with a value of €8-9bn (£6-6.8bn), ECPA says.
“We have to consider endocrine disruptors with a small weight and low-potency effect in a way balanced between their risk and the potential benefit,” Bocquet told the Guardian. “It is like if you have a very powerful car but it is driven carefully and safely, then you will not hurt the population with it,” he added.
The Commission’s draft criteria, though, say that because it can take decades of inter-generational research to quantify the risks from EDCs, a more precautionary approach is wise.
Potency “is not relevant for the hazard identification,” the paper says. “Potency on its own does not inform for high/low concern. Potency makes sense only if combined with exposure information and information on uncertainties.”
Risks from high doses of low-potency chemicals can be greater than that from low doses of high-potency ones, it continues. “There is no scientific way to define the cut-off threshold. It is always a decision based on impacts,” the paper says.
The human endocrine system synthesises chemical messengers – hormones – in one tissue before they are transported to another by the circulatory system, but very little is known about the way the process works.
Scientific evidence though suggests that endocrine-disrupting effects, such as lowered sperm counts, genital malformations, non-descended testes and misplaced penis holes, are increasing.
One recent study by the Washington University School of Medicine linked 15 EDCs found in plastics, personal care products and household items to the early onset of menopause.
Lisette van Vliet, a senior policy adviser to the Health and Environment Alliance, blamed pressure from the UK and German ministries and industry for delaying public protection from chronic diseases and environmental damage.
“This is really about whether we in the EU honestly and openly use the best science for identifying EDCs, or whether the interests of certain industries and two ministries or agencies from two countries manage to sway the outcome to the detriment of protecting public health and the environment,” she said.
Catherine Day countered that endocrine science was a complex area that was not necessarily as clear as some NGOs claimed.
“Needless to say, there is absolutely no truth in the allegation that our position was influenced by industry or anyone else,” she said. “Our concern is only for the quality and coherence of the Commission’s work – but not everyone wants to wait for that.”