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21 June 2016

Endocrine disrupters: the European Commission’s definition satisfies neither NGOs nor manufacturers

Two years behind its legal obligations, on 15 June the European Commission presented its criteria for identifying endocrine disrupters, substances that disrupt the hormonal system. They are based on a definition established in 2002 by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Not only have many environmental and health protection organisations criticised the Commission’s selection, but also many in the pesticide industry, albeit for diametrically opposed reasons.

European Health Commissioner Vytanis Andriukaitis has summarised the chosen definition as follows: ‘an endocrine disrupter is a substance that has undesirable effects on human health and that acts on the hormonal system, and the link between the two has been proved.’

This definition has been awaited for several years, being necessary for the proper functioning of European regulations on phytopharmaceutical products (2009) and biocides (2012).

The industry is unhappy because the Commission has not taken into consideration so-called ‘potency’ criteria that would have permitted manufacturers to continue to put less ‘potent’ products on the market. In this respect the Commission has followed scientific opinion, which considers that endocrine disrupters can have an adverse effect in weak doses, the important thing being, more often than not, the moment of exposure (especially at the foetal stage).

Environmental protection organisations, public health bodies, green parties and many European governments, for their part, have criticised the fact that before banning a substance it will be necessary to prove that it has a deleterious effect on humans, which excludes data concerning animals alone. However, certain warning signals arise from the animal world. For Green MEP Michèle Rivasi ‘this proposal makes human beings into guinea pigs’.

Furthermore, health and environmental advocates have criticised the possibility of derogations in the event of ‘negligible exposure’. This idea has incurred the wrath of NGOs and a number of scientists. In effect, it permits a revival of the logic of ‘risk evaluation’, while the European regulation of 2009 on pesticides requires an approach based solely on ‘danger’.

The European Commission has refused to classify endocrine disrupters in different categories (disrupters found in human beings, disrupters suspected in human beings on the basis of tests on animals and potential disrupters), like those for carcinogens. This option was defended by the ETUC and environmental protection and public health organisations. It would have permitted a harmonised approach to the regulation of chemical substances giving most cause for concern.

The Commission’s refusal has also been criticised by the Danish Minister of the Environment Lunde Larsen, according to whom excluding the identification of suspected disrupters and limiting legislation to proven disrupters conflicts with the general approach to regulating the substances of most concern.

The proposals presented by the Commission now have to be approved by the member states. The European Parliament will have no say in the matter to the extent that the Commission has acted within the framework of an ‘adaptation to technical progress’. This decision has been criticised because in formulating its criteria the Commission modified the substance of the regulation of pesticides. It envisages authorising endocrine disrupters on the basis of a criterion of ‘negligible risk’, which was not provided for in this legislation.

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NGOs press releases: ChemSec - Health and Environment Alliance

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