EDCs — man-made chemicals that interfere with hormone regulation — are all around us. The EU is trying to regulate them, but industry has other ideas, says Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill
HORMONES are a key regulator in our bodies: They tell cells to die; they regulate our sexuality; they are essential to our health; dictate our growth and development; our metabolism; our sleep and our moods — and they can cause mayhem in our bodies.
They function normally most of the time, but over the past few decades our bodies are being flooded with man-made chemicals that mimic these very hormones.
A little like smoking and lung cancer, the scientists have not finally nailed down the connection between these chemicals and ailments from obesity to cancer.
However, a huge body of research is now sufficient for the World Health Organisation and the UN to pronounce that they pose a global threat and it’s time to take action.
The problem is that these chemicals — known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) — are now in so many products, in the food that we eat, and the air that we breathe, that getting rid of them is not easy, and the industry that relies on them is a huge lobby.
A few years ago, the EU began cutting back on them, banning them from babies’ bottles and toys such as teething rings. They accept that everyday products such as detergents, plastics, cosmetics, textiles, and paints contain such chemicals.
Environment ministers agreed earlier this month that they can interfere with hormonal regulation in living creatures and affect reproduction, growth, development and behaviour and say that action must be taken to prevent risks and limit exposure, especially to the most vulnerable such as pregnant women and young children.
However, US government research says that 93% of Americans have one of these chemicals, BPA, in their bodies. They are extremely difficult to avoid, as they are found so widely in food, because of the use of pesticides, as additives in food and for wrapping and containers.
They are also in plastics, electronics, personal-care products, and cosmetics. The WHO say they can enter the environment through industrial and urban discharges, agricultural run-off and the burning and release of waste. They can be absorbed into the blood and body through ingesting food, dust and water, inhaling gases and particles in the air, and through skin contact.
The WHO says that pinpointing exact causes and effects is extremely difficult due to wide gaps in knowledge.,
Dr Maria Neira, the WHO’s Director for Public Health and Environment said: “The latest science shows that communities across the globe are being exposed to EDCs, and their associated risks. WHO will work with partners to establish research priorities to investigate links to EDCs and human health impacts in order to mitigate the risks. We all have a responsibility to protect future generations.”
The links are growing. US scientists say that they have found a link between just one of the EDC chemicals used in food wrapping and obesity in children and others link them to autism and to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.
In men, they are linked to low sperm count, abnormalities of the penis and testicles, cancer of the prostate and testes, while in women they are linked to breast and endometrial cancer, and to obesity, diabetes and heart disease generally.
They affect the foetus in the womb and their effects may only emerge much later in life, but they have also been linked to lower IQ in children, to early puberty, and to genital malformations in humans and animals.
Bans and restrictions on their use have resulted in the recovery of wildlife populations and a reduction in health problems, the WHO says.
Part of the problem is that there are so many man-made chemicals and cocktails of chemicals in products that according to the UN, those that are known are only the tip of the iceberg, and comprehensive testing methods are required to identify others and their impact.
They are on the EU’s action list of chemicals to be regulated over the next six years — by 2020. So far, this work is behind schedule as obstacles have been placed in the way through intensive lobbying by some counties and industry.
It has become so bad that Sweden is taking the European Commission to court to force it to begin regulating and the country has already taken steps to control them for its own citizens.
A lobby is building in France as well, where public interest is growing and will further increase with a number of TV programmes due to air over the next few weeks.
Ireland was not among the five countries that supported France at the most recent environment ministers meeting when they insisted that the Commission move on the issue. A spokesperson said that they were studying the French paper and pointed out that the EU’s Environment Action Programme 2014-2020 that commits the Union to assess the risks of EDCs, especially for children, and to minimise them, was put together under the Irish Presidency of the EU last year.
The document says there is still uncertainty about the full impacts on human health of these chemicals but spells out that: “Research indicates that some chemicals have endocrine-disrupting properties that may cause a number of adverse effects on health and the environment, including with regard to the development of children, potentially even at very low doses, and that such effects warrant consideration of precautionary action.”
The commitment is to place “all relevant substances of very high concern” on the REACH candidate list — the list of chemicals that are banned or regulated. “In particular, the Union will develop harmonised hazard-based criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors. The Union will also set out a comprehensive approach to minimising exposure to hazardous substances, including chemicals in products”
JUST this week, after a continuing battle inside the European Commission, the roadmap for the public consultation prior to drawing up regulations for the EDCs has at last been published.
This was delayed for months as industry, including the cosmetics industry, bombarded the Commission with research suggesting there were no problems with the chemicals they use, contrary to the general body of research world-wide.
Heal, the Brussels-based health lobby, says all EU laws must be overhauled to reduce people’s exposure to EDCs and they should set out a specific timetable by which EDCs must be identified and substituted for safer alternatives.
“A year ago, we were expecting the European Commission to propose a package of EDC policies, including a new strategy for tackling EDCs,”said Heal director, Genon Jensen.
“We were also expecting a proposal for identification criteria so that the EU pesticide and biocide laws which prohibit EDCs could begin to work. We are still waiting for the package.”
The delays and resistance to regulating EDCs is symptomatic of a trend in some parts of the Commission to bow to the wishes of big business and countries that push their interests. Even simple actions such as that to reduce the use of plastic bags — introduced in Ireland years ago — took a long time to finalise.
The policy is to apply the precautionary principle — that if there is a sufficient danger to citizens, then action should be taken.
Heal, the health lobby group, says that where regulatory action to protect or improve health has been taken in the past — even if there was not 100% scientific proof of harm — hindsight and further science has shown it to be justified.
“Examples include early controls on smoking, which were introduced before scientists were able to give a biological explanation of the causal link,” said Mr Jensen.
However, there are on-going attacks on this principle that have increased during the current crisis when the need to create jobs is being used as an excuse to minimise such concerns.
There is also a move towards being selective in the evidence produced to justify actions. Recently, Dr Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has spoken out about this warning there was a tendency to develop policy first, and then give the order to find the research to support such a decision.
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