Endocrine disruptors pose a substantial risk to public health, yet the European Commission has dawdled time and again on introducing measures that would finally limit their use. Now is the time to put this right, write Genon Jensen and Michael Warhurst.
Genon Jensen is the Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and Michael Warhurst is the Executive Director of CHEM Trust.
Over twenty years ago, scientists began to be concerned about chemicals that could disrupt our body’s sensitive hormone (or endocrine) system, which are particularly crucial in development and reproduction, also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). In spite of the fact that chemicals with these properties are found in everyday products, the EU still has not agreed the criteria to identify such EDC chemicals.
Without such criteria the people of Europe – and our environment – are not being properly protected and concerns continue to mount in medical and cancer communities and among leading global endocrine experts.
EU legislation on controlling the use of pesticides and biocides stated that the European Commission should determine these scientific criteria for EDC identification by December 2013. Due to the Commission’s failure to publish criteria by that deadline, Sweden launched a legal challenge in the European Court of Justice.
Its December 2015 verdict stated that the executive was in breach of EU law and that the criteria to determine endocrine disrupting properties can only be done in an objective manner, based on the scientific data in relation to the endocrine system, independently of any other consideration. It ruled there was no obligation to do an impact assessment.
It is now 2016. We welcome the European Commission’s promise to finally propose the criteria “by the summer”. However, in the meantime the Commission has prioritised the Better Regulation approach with carrying out impact assessments that focus on cost to businesses. This is why we are concerned about how they will select the EDC criteria to propose. The executive seems to be putting much more effort into speeding up the impact assessment of different options for criteria than into the scientific justification of the criteria themselves.
In our view, it is clear that the best criteria for identifying endocrine disrupters are those in option 3 of the executive’s roadmap, using the definition from the World Health Organisation, with three categories (rankings based on the weight of evidence), similar to the current EU identification system for carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic compounds.
If the European Commission was looking for a quick way to follow the court ruling, the next step would obviously be to go ahead and adopt the draft criteria proposal from June 2013, which are already the product of a great deal of Commission-led, Commission-funded, and member state expert work and deliberation. To date, we have not yet heard any specific argument from the executive against the scientific validity of these identification criteria.
The Commission likes to stress the pioneering work on the EDC criteria, as do we. Such criteria would make Europe the first in the world to have official identification anchored in law.
But if the criteria finally proposed by European civil servants, and chosen by our national government officials, are not good at identifying the hormone disruptors to which we are exposed, and which pose a threat to our health and environment, our pioneering efforts will have ended in failure.
The good news is that scientific assessments and tools are already available, even though there is still the need for more and better tests and screens. EDCs have already been identified under REACH according to the WHO definition. This demonstrates that EDC identification is possible and workable in a regulatory context.
It is important to note that the identification of a chemical as an EDC is just the first stage of a regulatory process, which does not mean a total immediate ban. In the case of pesticides, if there is no safer alternative and a chemical is still needed due to a “serious danger to plant health”, then its use can continue.
For a biocide, use can continue if a ban would lead to a “disproportionate negative impact”. In the REACH authorisation process, the regulators can consider a socioeconomic assessment of the consequences of use versus non-use. But any decision-making on the necessity versus problems of the uses will not work well if we have not identified the EDCs correctly in the first place.
HEAL and CHEM Trust have joined over 60 groups in the EDC Free Europe coalition to write to all 28 environment and health ministers prior to the next Environment Council meeting this Friday (4 March). We asked them to defend the law they made in order to protect our health and to demand that the Commission immediately complies with the ruling of the ECJ.
This could mean picking up the draft scientific criteria proposed in June 2013 and putting it through the internal Commission consultation as soon as possible. It would use valuable work that’s already been completed, and Europe could move on and start transitioning to sustainable agriculture and healthier farmers and societies.