Time to action European promises on endocrine disruptors
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By Natacha Cingotti
Natacha Cingotti is the Senior Policy Officer for health and chemicals at the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL). She coordinates HEAL’s EU and national advocacy on a range of policies, including endocrine disrupting chemicals, REACH, pesticides, and biocides, in close cooperation with HEAL’s member organisations.
She represents HEAL in the European Commission, Parliament and member states fora and participates in the EU Chemicals Agency work. She is a frequent contributor to radio, TV and print media on opportunities to prevent diseases through more ambitious and coherent EU chemicals policies.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has committed to address endocrine disruptors as part of “a cross-cutting strategy to protect citizens’ health from environmental degradation and pollution” to reach “a zero-pollution ambition”.
Considering our ubiquitous exposure to these chemicals and their link to serious health conditions and costs, high-level and ambitious promises are welcome. But it is now time to put these promises into action.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – chemicals that have the ability to interfere with the functioning of our hormone system and impact our health and that of future generations – have regularly been in the spotlight of policy discussions over the last years.
These include chemicals that are used in the processing and production of plastics such as bisphenol A, phthalates such as DEHP, or pesticides that are sprayed onto agricultural crops. EDCs are contributing to serious diseases and health conditions such as hormone-related cancers, impaired fertility, diabetes and neurological problems.
Scientific societies and the public health community have raised concerns about the loopholes and lack of coherence in existing provisions to identify and regulate those chemicals, regularly calling on European decision-makers and regulatory agencies to have a more precautionary approach before allowing chemicals onto the market in order to protect people from potential health effects.
Since Europe’s first strategy on endocrine disruptors in 1999, the knowledge on EDCs has increased significantly, as illustrated by the multiplication of scientific statements, peer-reviewed publications and reports.
There are of course areas of uncertainties, including on how chemicals interfere with the hormonal system, or the lack of test methods that are sensitive enough to fully investigate all relevant health impacts. But today we know a lot - in fact, we have reached a level of knowledge that makes it impossible if not outright negligent to delay action for health protection from EDCs.
There are many important learnings that call for an update in European provisions to address endocrine disruptors:
Low dose and timing matter
EDCs can impact at very low doses of exposure that are considered ‘safe’ under traditional risk assessment methods. The toxicological mantra of ‘the dose makes the poison’ does not hold true in all cases for EDCs.
The timing of exposure is of utmost importance for potential health impacts: small doses of EDCs at key moments of development, such as exposure of a foetus in the womb, can contribute to severe and irreversible health conditions later in life such as increased risk of hormonal cancer or metabolism disorder.
Timing also matters, because there can be a large time gap between the actual exposure and health effects, sometimes across several generations – as illustrated with the DES drug, originally administered to women to avoid miscarriage and still resulting in health effects in their children and grandchildren today.
Ubiquity of EDCs has to be reflected across regulations
Known and suspected EDCs are present in numerous consumer products that we use on a daily basis: food packaging, cosmetic products, furniture. Among the numerous lists of EDCs that have been compiled by independent sources over the last years, The Endocrine Disrupting Exchange list (TEDX) gathers over a thousand potential EDCs.
However, only 18 EDCs have been identified through existing provisions under the REACH, pesticides and biocides regulations until now. Being serious about the promise to minimise EDC exposure should start by expanding provisions to identify EDCs across sectors and regulations, for one can only regulate what is identified. Because levels of scientific knowledge vary across substances, we need to develop categories for ‘suspected’, ‘presumed’, and ‘known’ EDCs, similar to what we have for carcinogens, reprotoxicants and mutagens.
Considering low-dose effects, known and suspected EDCs alike should not be allowed in consumer products. And the identification of an EDC under one regulation should lead to regulatory consequences in all regulations addressing this chemical. For instance, bisphenol A should be banned from all consumer products including food packages.
If Europe is serious about delivering on its promises and regulating based on science, then the current evaluation of the EDC framework is a real opportunity for health, environment and our economy.
But this requires two essential ingredients when overhauling regulation and allowing chemicals onto the market: first, the courage to reward and give incentives to those industry players that invest in truly safe innovation; second systematically putting health protection and questioning the added-value for society as whole above other interests when taking decisions.
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