Lately there has been a lot of talk in EU circles about endocrine disruptors. Endo-what you might ask? Let me break it down for you:
Imagine you urgently need to call somebody with an important message. But no matter how often you try, the telephone line is always busy. Imagine you try again at a later stage, and you get through this time but, unfortunately, to the wrong person – or suddenly many different people are on the line all speaking at once so nobody understands what the others are saying.
This is exactly what endocrine disruptors, also known as hormone disrupting chemicals, are doing to our bodies: they prevent the right messages from getting through to the right recipient at the right time.
We all know how frustrating a busy telephone line can be. But the consequences of endocrine disruption are not only frustrating. They are downright tragic.
Given their capacity to interfere with the body’s hormonal system, endocrine disruptors may lead to many incurable health problems such as obesity, diabetes, infertility, genital malformations, neurobehavioural disorders and cancer. And because these chemicals are widely found in products we use every day – from cosmetics and personal care products to the water we drink and the food we eat – this is a risk that concerns us all.
According to one estimate, in the EU the price tag for this disruption is a whopping €157 billion per year . Or some 220 euros for every EU citizen, young and old, every year.
Apples and Oranges
With health impacts like these, you would think endocrine disruptors are tightly controlled by EU regulators, right? Wrong!
Laws and regulations require – among other things – clear language about what is to be regulated. In other words, before you can control these harmful chemicals, you need to define what an endocrine disruptor is.
That is exactly what EU Member States and the European Parliament told the Commission to do back in 2009. The Commission was specifically told to listen to what the scientists were saying about endocrine disruptors and their harmful properties . The Commission was also told to conclude its work on a definition no later than December 2013.
But somehow this message didn’t get through or the Commission decided to ignore it . It is now a full two years after the deadline passed and we are still waiting on the Commission to tell us how it defines an endocrine disruptor.
What is more, the Commission also decided to consider costs to industry even though the Member States and Parliament had expressly told it not to – but only consider whether and how a chemical may disrupt the endocrine system. That is, whereas the Commission had been told to compare apples with apples, it now threw oranges into the mix.
A clear message from the Court
But this deliberate mix-up was against the law. Last year, the EU Court told the Commission to respect the deadlines set by the Member States and Parliament and to stop mixing apples with oranges; that is, to define endocrine disruptors using scientific criteria, not economic ones. Unfortunately, the Commission turned a deaf ear to the Court and stubbornly continues to insist on drawing up criteria with an eye to their cost for industry.
Maybe, just maybe, the overall message – that the harm caused by endocrine disruptors needs to stop – is finally getting through to the Commission. Earlier this month, the EU’s public health chief, Vytenis Andriukaitis, who is in charge of overseeing this entire mess, promised the European Parliament that work on defining endocrine disruptors will conclude before summer 2016.
How to reduce the disruption
So here’s a simple suggestion for Commissioner Andriukaitis on how to proceed: skip the pointless economic impact study.
Pointless, not only because assessing a scientific matter through an economic study is irrelevant, as pointed out by the EU court, but because the Commission already figured out how to define an endocrine disruptor in summer 2013. It took Commission officials three years, several studies and meetings with stakeholders, including industry, to arrive at this definition based on scientific criteria.
Why wait until summer 2016? Use the draft definition now to end the threat of endocrine disruptors.
UPDATE: On 15/6/2016, the European Commission proposed criteria to identify endocrine disruptors in plant protection products and biocides. Sadly, the proposed criteria were not worth waiting almost 3 years for, as they will fail to adequately protect consumers. See here our stance.
 This estimate includes direct costs such as hospital stays, physicians’ services, nursing-home care and other medical costs as well as indirect costs resulting from lost worker productivity, early death and disability, and loss of intellectual abilities caused by prenatal exposure. However, this estimate does not cover intangible cost such as a loss of life-quality, suggesting that the true cost of EDC exposure is much higher.
 Under the 2009 Pesticides Regulation, the Member States and Parliament established “hazard-based cut-off criteria” for endocrine-disrupting chemicals; that is, the law considers these chemicals hazardous as such. For regulatory purposes, the question that must be answered is thus ‘does a chemical have the ability to disrupt the functioning of the endocrine system in laboratory studies?’ This ‘hazard-based approach’ replaces traditional risk assessment that aims to define a ‘safe’ level of exposure based on an assessment of actual exposure levels and a comparison with the concentration or dose which causes the adverse effect in order to calculate the existence, extent and severity of a risk.
 A detailed account of what went wrong is available here: http://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/toxic_lobby_edc.pdf