Why the next European Commission has to take action on endocrine disruptors

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One-third of the chemical substances present on the European market today do not fit the EU’s REACH regulation on chemicals.[i] Particularly controversial here are the hormone-disrupting chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. 

According to the World Health Organisation, endocrine disruptors are exogenous substances or mixtures that influence the endocrine system and cause adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub) populations. They include substances like Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, flame retardants and some pesticides.

An exposure endangering citizens’ health and the environment

Endocrinal disruptors are believed to have a low-dose effect[ii] (and so thresholds of minimal exposure would not be sufficient monitoring tools) and can result in a ‘cocktail effect’ (substances can have a greater impact if mixed with others).  Exposure to these substances may lead to the development of diseases, with higher risks for children and pregnant women.[iii] 

Information on the presence of endocrine disruptors in products is lacking in the EU, leaving consumers frequently unaware of how exposed they are to them.

An analysis published by Le Monde showed that 23 to 54 substances believed to be endocrine disruptors have been found in children’s hair, while the French organisation Generations futures found that, on average, 1.052 kg of suspected endocrine disruptors were sold per hectare in France in 2017.

Such worrying statistics require that the EU takes action. This includes:

  • Banning harmful substances
  • Requiring that information on dangerous substances be clearly stated
  • Removing harmful substances from the market

Endocrine disruptors can also hinder circular economy as they can remain in the loop, causing challenges around reuse and recycling.

What are the EU’s actions?

In 2015, Sweden sued the European Commission for delays in setting identification criteria for endocrine disruptors within pesticides and biocides. The Commission chose to run an impact assessment before setting the criteria and this additional step was seen as unnecessary by the European Court of Justice.

The proposed criteria were then rejected by the European Parliament for containing a derogation backed by the chemicals industry on selected pesticides. The derogation was for an alleged hormonal-disrupting effect on non-target organisms, which would have left some endocrine disruptors on the market.a

The new criteria, based on the definition by WHO and the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), were approved in April 2018.[iv]

Last November, the Commission published a communication[v] on endocrine disruptors that indicated intentions to establish a horizontal approach.

The communication explains that there are specific provisions for pesticides and biocides, chemicals, medical devices and water, but the requirements vary from one legislation to the other.

Other legislations – such as those on food contact materials, cosmetics, toys and protection of workers at the workplace – do not provide specific provisions, but can have case-by-case regulatory action on the basis of their general requirements.

BPA, for instance, is banned in food contact materials for children and in paper receipts, and can have only limited presence in toys.

The REACH regulation only lists two endocrine disruptors on the list of substances requiring a special authorisation, while 4 phthalates are proposed to be banned, 13 substances are candidates to be included in the authorisation list, and 80 substances are being evaluated.

While the document concludes that it is necessary to act and intends to do so by listing some actions at the European level, it falls short of formulating a concrete action plan.

In response, a number of MEPs pointed out the lack of ‘concrete precautionary measures’ and criticised the Commission’s failure to address the urgency of the question. Instead, they said, the Commission has proposed a new fitness check on the document, which, they argued, would only cause further delays in regulatory action.[vi]

Because of knowledge gaps on how the substances cause adverse effects, the precautionary principle is the most relevant tool to be used when regulating on endocrine disruptors.

Even though the Commission’s communication on endocrine disruptors mentions the use of the precautionary principle, this has not yet been translated into a systematic approach to endocrine disrupting substances, and focuses on a case by case approach, even though research lists effects on human health believed to be coming from endocrine disruptors.

The need for an EU Action Plan

Endocrine disruptors are taken into consideration and included in environmental health policies, and in the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), particularly through the ‘non-toxic environment’ objective. However, this part of the EAP has not been implemented yet.

While some member states are developing national strategies to address this issue, a stringent EU-wide strategy would be needed to address substances that have proven or suspected negative effects. This would ensure the protection of people and the environment and boost eco-innovation in finding sustainable and safer substitutes.[vii]

According to the Health and Environment Alliance group (HEAL), phasing out endocrine disruptors would save approximately 31 billion euros in health-related costs each year in the EU,[viii] including reproductive and fertility problems; genital malformation; cancers; behavioural disorders; obesity and diabetes.

Endocrine disruptors also have an effect on the environment and on wildlife. Similarly to the health risks for humans, they  can alter the immune and reproductive systems in wildlife.[ix]

In its “Late lessons from early warning volume 2”, the EEA points out that ‘the majority of the case studies (…) illustrate that if the precautionary principle had been applied on the basis of early warnings, justified by 'reasonable grounds for concern', many lives would have been saved and much damage to ecosystems avoided.’[x]

This is why an action plan on endocrinal disruptors should be included in the Green New Deal proposed by the New President of the European Commission. In her agenda, Ursula von der Leyen announced she will put forward a “cross-cutting” strategy that protects European citizens from various health threats, including endocrine disrupters.

Such a Green New Deal would not only protect nature but also people, contributing to improved health and well-being of European citizens.

Sources:

[i] A third of chemicals break EU safety laws (EEB, 2018)

[ii] Large Effects from Small Exposures. I. Mechanisms for Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals with Estrogenic Activity

[iv] Impact assessment (IA) on defining criteria for identifying Endocrine Disruptors (ED) in the context of the

implementation of the Plant Protection Products Regulation and Biocidal Products Regulation (European Commission, 2016)

[v] Towards a comprehensive European Union framework on endocrine disruptors (European Commission, 2018)

[vi] Commission's failure to take urgent measures on endocrine disrupting chemicals   (European Parliament, 2018)

[vii] Policy Approaches to Incentivise Sustainable Plastic Design (OECD, 2018)

[viii] Health costs in the European Union (HEAL, 2014)

[ix] Health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on wildlife, with special reference to the European situation

[x] EEA Late lessons from early warning II, p. 38.