UN report finds ‘new proof’ of link between endocrine disruptors and common diseases


A new United Nations report has provided more evidence linking endocrine disrupting chemicals to the development of different cancers, obesity and diabetes.

The report State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) says that there is a growing probability that maternal, fetal and childhood exposure to chemical substances plays a larger role in causing endocrine-related diseases and disorders.

"We present new proofs that there is a link between endocrine disrupting chemicals and common diseases," Åke Bergman, professor at Stockholm University and chief editor of the report, said in a statement.

"Endocrine illnesses are so common and increase, and we can demonstrate the link to endocrine disrupting chemicals. The rate of increase is so great that genetic causes can't be the reason why," the professor said.

In the report, the researchers show that there are several disorders which are increasing and can be linked to endocrine disrupting substances:

  • Cancer – breast cancer, endometriosis, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid cancer increase.
  • Obesity and diabetes – these have increased over the past 40 years, especially type 2 diabetes, which has more than doubled since 1980.
  • Decreasing male sperm counts and genital malformations, which are increasing among young boys.
  • Birth defects – such as low birth weight and abrupt pregnancies – which have increased in many countries.
  • Premature breast development among young girls, a phenomenon that can lead to breast cancer.
  • Thyroid problems, which are also increasing among children in some countries and can lead to behavioural disorders.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals mainly enter the environment through industrial and urban discharges, agricultural run-off and the burning and release of waste. 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 contaminants in food.

"Of greatest significance is that we now know that there are particularly vulnerable periods during fetal and postnatal life when endocrine-disrupting chemicals alone, or in mixtures, have strong and often irreversible effects on developing organs, whereas exposure of adults causes lesser or no effects," the authors write.

>> Read: EU-funded research shows mothers, children exposed to chemicals

More research needed

When it comes to testing, the authors say that known endocrine-disrupting chemicals are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and more comprehensive testing methods are required to identify other possible endocrine disruptors, their sources, and routes of exposure.

More scientific evidence is also needed to identify the effects of mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on humans and mainly from industrial byproducts to which humans are increasingly exposed.

Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, said this was exactly the problem with the new report. The paper links several effects on human to environmental exposure to chemicals, without sufficient proof of a causal relationship, they say, ignoring the role played by other factors such as lifestyle.

"The report fails to meet the standards expected for sound scientific work," said Cefic's Director General Hubert Mandery.

Cefic encourages governments and intergovernmental agencies to use consistent and objective criteria for evaluating studies and a transparent framework for evaluating the overall weight of scientific evidence.

Wake-up call for the EU

However, Sylvia Maurer, safety and environment senior policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), called the UNEP and WHO report a "landmark study".

According to BEUC, the report alerts policy makers to the risks associated with chemicals that can interfere with hormonal actions, and currently lack adequate safeguards.

"Every day, consumers are in contact with products that contain chemicals which have not been sufficiently tested for their safety," Maurer said. "This is a tremendous problem for our society knowing that these hazardous chemicals may be linked to the formation and increase in severe and chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and obesity."

"The authors of the study explain very clearly that current risk assessment and risk management methods give false assurances of safety. We basically underestimate the real risks of disease related to endocrine disruptors," the BEUC policy officer added.

In 2006, the European Commission adopted the REACH regulation, which requires chemical manufacturers to register 30,000 out of the 100,000 or so substances currently on the market and submit them for safety screening and subsequent authorisation.

Those that are considered to pose an unacceptable threat to human health or the environment may be phased out and eventually replaced.

Lena Ek, Sweden's minister for the environment, said:

"It is time to speed up the phasing-out the most problematic endocrine disruptors. Bisphenol A that is used in many plastics is a clear candidate. In the EU, we decided in 2010 to a ban BPA in baby feeding bottles. In Sweden, we have banned its use in food containers for children under three. Industry has been able to find alternative materials. We are now discussing the possibility for a total ban of BPA use in Sweden, with receipts and material in contact with food as a priority. I hope that other countries as well as companies will take similar action on BPA, and other known endocrine disrupting chemicals, and to use the precautionary principle."

Lisette van Vliet, Ph.D. and senior policy adviser of Chemicals and Chronic Disease Prevention at the Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL), told EURACTIV:

"The report is a timely confirmation that the EU is facing a crucial opportunity to effectively deal with endocrine disrupting chemicals - the Commission has forthcoming proposals – first, on how the EU should tackle endocrine disrupting chemicals in a coherent overarching policy (the EU endocrine disrupting chemicals strategy); and second how the EU should identify endocrine disrupting chemicals so that they can be banned, phased out or otherwise properly managed (the criteria to identify, risk assess and test for endocrine disrupting chemicals). The response to and application of the EU strategy and criteria by Member states and the companies which produce or use these chemicals will also be vital to reducing people's exposures."

The International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) said the UNEP and WHO report highlights the need for all stakeholders to act to limit human exposure of endocrine disrupting chemicals.

"In the EU there is an on-going process of agreeing on criteria for endocrine disruptors, and it is highly important that the outcome of this process will be inclusive and efficient criteria, taking into account the built-in problems with endocrine disrupting chemicals such as low-dose effects,” Anne-Sofie Andersson, ChemSec's director, told EURACTIV.

Sylvia Maurer, safety and environment senior policy officer at the European consumer organisation BEUC, told EURACTIV: "The report rightly calls on policy makers to reduce exposure to those hormone-disturbing chemicals and to even consider bans and restrictions of some hazardous chemicals."

"It is of particular importance to better protect vulnerable consumers such as pregnant women, babies and young children as it has been found that the effects of endocrine disrupters during these crucial stages of human development can have life-long negative health consequences. Consumers’ exposure to chemicals in everyday products such as toys, textiles, plastic items, cosmetics and furniture needs to be reduced," Maurer added.

Executive Director of UNEP Achim Steiner said: “Chemical products are increasingly part of modern life and support many national economies, but the unsound management of chemicals challenges the achievement of key development goals, and sustainable development for all."

“Investing in new testing methods and research can enhance understanding of the costs of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, and assist in reducing risks, maximising benefits and spotlighting more intelligent options and alternatives that reflect a transition to a green economy,” Steiner added.

“We urgently need more research to obtain a fuller picture of the health and environment impacts of endocrine disruptors,” said Maria Neira, WHO’s director for Public Health and Environment.

“The latest science shows that communities across the globe are being exposed to endocrine disrupting disorders, and their associated risks. WHO will work with partners to establish research priorities to investigate links to endocrine disrupting chemicals and human health impacts in order to mitigate the risks. We all have a responsibility to protect future generations."

Åke Bergman, professor at Stockholm University and chief editor of the report, said:

"The most important global challenge is to find ways to minimise the exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and leads to negative health effects. This is a threat to the environment of the same magnitude as humans' effect on the climate."

Human health depends on a well-functioning endocrine system to regulate the release of certain hormones that are essential for functions such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood.

Some substances known as endocrine disruptors can alter the function(s) of this hormonal system increasing the risk of adverse health effects.

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 contaminants in food.

European Commission



EU Actors' Positions

  • The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic): Website
  • The International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec): Website
  • The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC): Website
  • World Health Organization (WHO): Website
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): Website

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