Experts from the 28 EU member states approved on Tuesday (4 July) a proposed list of criteria to identify endocrine disruptors in plant protection products – a move presented by the European Commission as a step towards a broader regulatory system for similar chemicals used in cosmetics, toys and food packaging.
The scientific criteria determining hormone-disrupting chemicals used in pesticides and biocides was adopted by EU member state representatives sitting in the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, described the agreement as “a great success” and called on the European Parliament and the Council, involved in the decision-making process, to ensure its smooth adoption.
The list “will provide a stepping stone for further actions to protect health and the environment by enabling the Commission to start working on a new strategy to minimise exposure of EU citizens to endocrine disruptors, beyond pesticides and biocides”, the Commission said in a statement.
The new strategy will aim to cover for example toys, cosmetics and food packaging, the EU executive added.
The decision is meant to bring to an end a protracted controversy surrounding the definition of endocrine disruptors, which has divided EU member states for years.
The European Commission published its proposed set of scientific criteria to identify chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties in June 2016 – three years later than legally required – prompting Sweden to sue the EU executive.
Hazard vs. potency
Behind the scenes, France – backed by Sweden and Denmark – led a campaign for regulators to adopt a definition “based on the intrinsic properties of hazard, without taking into account the ‘potency’” of the substance – or the amount required for a drug to generate an effect on the human organism.
Based on this definition, Paris suggested establishing three broad sets of criteria based on the level of certainty of the scientific community over their impact on the hormone system – “verified”, “presumed” and “suspected”.
But these three categories were resisted by Germany and its powerful chemicals lobby, which insisted on the need to consider hazard and exposure jointly – as well as potency – in order to evaluate the actual risk for humans.
“Without potency built-in, substances present in everyday food and drinks which are safe for consumption such as caffeine or soybean proteins could be identified as an endocrine disruptor,” warned CEFIC, the EU chemical industry association.
The pesticides industry also underlined the need to consider “potency” as an essential criteria, saying the notion is a fundamental principle of toxicology.
‘Turnaround’ by France
Paris finally bowed to pressure from Berlin and the adopted text doesn’t include the three sets of criteria, making it harder for substances to be classified in broad categories of toxicity.
The French socialist party, which lobbied for strict criteria while in power, condemned the “turnaround” of the government on the issue, and pointed the finger at Nicolas Hulot, a former environmental activist turned ecology minister.
“The text validated today by France is simply unacceptable because it provides for a very high burden of proof” to define harmful substances, said the French socialist delegation in the European Parliament.
The Greens group in Parliament agreed, saying “the European Commission’s criteria will make it very difficult to identify endocrine disruptors, meaning that few if any products would be removed from the market.” It vowed to build a majority in the European Parliament to “veto” the proposed criteria.
“Like the European Commission, most member states have put the interests of a handful of big agrochemical companies ahead of the safety of the public, with negative effects that go well beyond pesticides,” the Greens said in a statement.
Those calls were echoed by the consumer organisation BEUC, which urged the European Parliament and member states to “send this proposal back to the drawing board”.
Others, on the other hand, called on the Parliament to accept the criteria as a basis for future regulation.
“Some, of course, will prefer to see the glass half empty,” said Françoise Grossetête, a French MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). “But after so many hurdles and delays, it would be unthinkable for Parliament to obstruct the implementation of these criteria. On the contrary, I believe that, on this basis, we must work on a rapid application of this definition, so as to preserve the health of our fellow citizens. “