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20th May 2019

EU court slams EU officials on toxic chemicals delay

  • EU regulation called for 'particular attention' to 'pregnant women and children' (Photo: rigtor)

Big corporate influence on an EU health law may have helped land the European Commission at the receiving end of Europe's top court in Luxembourg.

On Wednesday (16 December), the General Court in Luxembourg ruled against the Brussels-executive for not following the very rules it is meant to enforce.

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Sweden took the commission to court for failing to come up with scientific criteria which determine endocrine-disrupting properties.

The General Court ruling can be appealed within two months. But the Luxembourg judges decided in favour of Sweden and noted that "the commission has failed to fulfil its obligations" under the law.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals found in everyday products, such as cosmetics and plastics.

These chemicals interact with hormonal systems and may inflict damage to people’s health and to the environment more broadly.

The EU adopted a regulation in 2012 to safeguard against the substances and to improve the free movement of biocidal products.

The regulation noted "particular attention should be paid to the protection of vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and children.”

The law required the commission to adopt delegated acts on the specification of the scientific criteria for the determination of endocrine-disruption properties.

These acts were supposed to have been adopted by 13 December 2013 at the latest.

The delay points to allegations of insider influence from the chemical industry in its attempts to water down the legislation.

Such delays are among the favoured tactics used by industry, including the tobacco industry, to weaken EU laws and proposals.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a pro-transparency group in Brussels, says the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) manipulated EU officials.

The story began when DG Environment at the European Commission launched an independent study in 2009 into endocrine toxicology in humans. The conclusions of the study riled US-based chemical corporations, among others in the industry.

An impact assessment study was then ordered. That study is still ongoing.

The transparency group noted, in a report out over the summer, the delay tactics fed into broader free trade talks with the United States, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

For its part, Cefic said the delays are a procedural issue and that it backs the commission efforts to define the best criteria to identify endocrine disruptors.

“We would emphasise that, while the delay in adopting these criteria is unfortunate, it does not mean that citizens are being exposed to a risk of endocrine disruption,” it told EUobserver in an email.

The former commission secretary general, Catherine Day, is also said to have had her hand in the affair.

French Green MEP Michele Rivasi says she intervened to block the proposal following industry contacts.

“It is a scandal that the former commission chose to disregard its legal obligations at the bidding of the industry lobby,” the MEP said in a statement.

The commission, in response to the court ruling, on Wednesday maintained the need to carry out the impact study despite the three-year delay.

“The objective is to conclude the impact assessment in 2016 and the decision-making concerning the criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors thereafter,” Enrico Brivio, the commission's health spokesman, told reporters in Brussels.

The commission says the delay is due, in part, to the large task it faces in identifying and categorising some 80,000 substances at the global level.

A commission public consultation netted 27,000 replies, which now need to be analysed by scientists.

"It needs to be stressed that any decision on endocrine disruptors has to be taken on solid scientific ground and that this is a highly complex and challenging issue,” said Brivio.

This article was updated at 7.36 am on 17 December to note that the General Court's ruling can be appealed

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