You are here
HEAL interview: 'Endocrine disruptors are one of the biggest public health threats of this century'
Although hormone-disrupting chemicals are recognised as a global public health threat by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission's public consultation on the matter, which closes today (16 January), is only meant to delay action and regulation, argues Génon K. Jensen.
Génon K. Jensen is director of the not-for-profit organisation Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). Jensen answered questions by EurActiv's Henriette Jacobsen.
What does HEAL think of the concept of the Commission's endocrine disruptors consultation?
The consultation is only one part of a larger impact assessment process, which has been introduced to delay action on endocrine-disrupting chemicals to protect public health.
HEAL believes it to be strange to hold a public consultation, and even an impact assessment, on the scientific criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors when the Commission has spent years obtaining scientific work and advice on this subject: for example, the Kortenkamp report contracted by the Commission; the two-year long Expert Advisory Group on endocrine disrupting chemicals, which included member state experts, NGO experts and industry experts, and which resulted in a report by the EU’s own Joint Research Centre; and even the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) opinion.
The fact that we are having an impact assessment at all is already testament to the influence the pesticides and chemicals industry have on the Commission.
It was already democratically agreed by 28 member states in 2009 and 2011 through the Parliament and the Council to remove these endocrine-disrupting pesticides and biocides, because of the risks of diseases and environmental problems generated by these products, which are widely dispersed and end up in our food, air, water and bodies. The laws agreed foresee exemptions to these bans when, for example, there is a serious danger to plant health.
So a broad agreement has been reached, but it seems the pesticides and chemical industries deliberately ignore it and keep fighting the same old battle.
What are your views on endocrine disruptors? Have you made your views heard during the consultation?
Endocrine disruptors are one of the biggest public health threats of this and possibly the next centuries, maybe on par with global climate destabilisation. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNEP say they are a global threat to health and the environment that needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
We believe that systematically reducing exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals provides a massive opportunity to prevent many chronic diseases, such as hormonal cancers (of breast, prostate, and testicles), diabetes and obesity, learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, and fertility problems. So it’s imperative that all endocrine-disrupting chemicals are properly identified. To this end, we believe the WHO definition, in combination with three categories that rank the endocrine disrupting chemicals according to the strength of the scientific evidence, is the single best way to proceed. It’s the same way that we identify chemicals that cause cancer, gene mutations or that are toxic to reproduction.
With respect to the different regulatory approaches in the consultation, HEAL does not think that making post-jure changes to the democratically agreed existing pesticides and biocides laws, which already allow for exceptions in case of need, is acceptable. Firstly, because the changes being considered would not be subject to a fully democratic legislative process, the way the pesticides and biocides laws were decided, and secondly because either of the two options (B or C) would essentially build a different escape hatch for hormone disrupting pesticides and biocides, which we had already, as a society, agreed must be phased out – unless they qualify for the already agreed exemptions built into the laws!
We have made our views known on the criteria, and insofar as the slanted format of the consultation allowed it, on the importance of the societal, environmental and health benefits that would come from properly identifying endocrine disrupting chemicals and proceeding with their phase out as agreed in the 2009 and 2011 laws.
HEAL and many other NGOs in the endocrine-disrupting chemicals-free Europe coalition, known as "EDC-Free Europe", have facilitated the voices of a large number of citizens across Europe on this. So far over 18,000 people have also asked for use the three categories with the WHO definition, and for no change in the existing laws and exemptions.
What do you expect will come out of the Commission's consultation?
We hope that the Commission will not be able to deny the political significance of (so far) over 18,000 people who have used our online platform to say it’s time to stop hormone disrupting chemicals from contaminating our environment and harming our health.
In the past, industry has greatly exaggerated the costs to their business, using models that are too static and limited. The agricultural industry has miscalculated the impact on farming yields by using bogus baselines, ignored or underestimated the benefits of adaptation, and so on. This has been detailed in the new report Predicted costs by industry in the face of new environmental regulations.
The Commission should conclude that we must systematically reduce our exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals and phase out their uses – something which will help prevent cancer, diabetes, obesity and infertility and can be an enormous catalyst for innovation and improvement because it will stimulate safer, healthier products and environments.
How many endocrine disrupting substances are a priority to you?
All those that are contaminating our bodies, our babies before birth, our breast milk and our environment.
HEAL supported and participated in the WWF human biomonitoring of three generations in Europe in 2005, and they found an average of at least 73 synthetic chemicals in the bodies of those tested. In the US, biomonitoring has found an average of 200 chemicals and contaminants already in newborns. Not all may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals, even though they are still hazardous and may interact with endocrine-disrupting chemicals to exert cocktail effects.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is also in charge of 'better regulation' and cutting red tape. Do you fear that regulation on endocrine disruptors could be one of the areas that he would consider scrapping?
Junker and Timmermans have stressed many times that they want the Commission to make a fresh start and bring the EU closer to citizens again.
Protection against exposure to endocrine disruptors is a key issue for people all over Europe. Consider for example the thousands of people in Germany using an app to detect endocrine disrupting chemicals in consumer products, the pregnant women in Denmark who consult a guide on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and how to avoid them, and the huge numbers of others throughout Europe who feel it necessary to empty food from plastic packaging before heating or microwaving.
The Parliament has made it abundantly clear they’re expecting the EU to act to reduce harm from endocrine disrupting chemicals. in December, nine EU member states - including Denmark, Germany, France and others - launched an initiative to urge the Commission to act. Several member states are frontrunners in adopting laws to phase out endocrine-disrupting chemicals in products.
Surely Timmermans doesn’t want to ignore all these concerns?
In addition, a recent assessment on cutting red tape in Europe by the High Level Group on Administrative Burdens found that environmental regulation accounts for less than 1% of the total administrative burden, with regulations in the areas of taxation/customs and annual accounts having a much higher toll.
We therefore hope that Timmermans will share our view that regulation on endocrine-disrupting chemicals is not only crucial to protect public health but also can actually be a driver for innovation towards less harmful chemicals. After all, he is also in charge of sustainable development in the EU.