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30th Oct 2020

EU adopts hormone disruptor norms

  • Scientists say endocrine disruptors are found in a wide range of everyday products, including food packaging. (Photo: Jan Willem van Wessel)

The recent change of government in France has allowed for a break in the deadlock in EU efforts to define what chemicals pose a threat to human health by interfering with hormones in the body.

European experts on Tuesday (4 July) endorsed a proposal by the European Commission on the scientific criteria to qualify what substances significantly alter the chemical balance in humans.

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The so-called endocrine disruptors (EDCs), scientists say, contribute to serious health problems such as diabetes, obesity and infertility.

But an EU system to classify them has been a long time in the making, allegedly because of industry pressure to postpone it.

Sweden grew tired of waiting and successfully sued the EU commission in 2014 for taking too long to put forward the classification system.

The EU executive finally unveiled its proposal last summer, but the regulatory process was soon stalled again.

Denmark, France and Sweden complained of the high burden of proof in the commission's proposal, which would mean only a few chemicals fell under the scope of the proposal.

More specifically, they wanted the criteria to capture not only "known" and "presumed" EDCs, but also "possible" ones.

They formed a blocking minority in the EU standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed - known as Paff - which gathers experts from member states.

Paff met again on Tuesday for the seventh vote on the issue. This time it passed, because France, whose governance was recently taken over by president Emmanuel Macron and prime minister Edouard Philippe, has dropped the opposition of the preceding socialist government.

Twenty-one member states voted in favour of the criteria, with the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden voting against. Hungary, Latvia, Poland and the UK abstained.

The French minister of environment, Nicolas Hulot, said in a statement that the vote had ended "four years of delay to ban dangerous substances".

He said the proposal had evolved since last year, and that the French government "had, in recent weeks, mobilised to strengthen the ambition of the proposal".

But Hulot's statements on Tuesday contradicted those he made on 23 June in an interview with French radio broadcaster RMC.

At the time, he said "the first thing" he did as a minister was postpone a vote on the commission's proposal, which had been scheduled for 30 May.

He had done so, he explained, because he deemed the proposal to be "insufficient".

However, this was the same proposal that France backed on Tuesday.

The minister, in his Tuesday statement, also announced that France would launch national measures which could include a national ban on products containing certain substances if the EU framework didn't prove stringent enough.

Francois Veillerette, director of the French environmental NGO Generations Futures, told EUobserver that he thought Hulot - formerly a famous journalist and environmental activist - had changed his stance because of orders from above.

"The way I read Hulot's communique is that Emmanuel Macron didn't want to come across as a blocking force in Brussels," Veillerette said, adding that "Hulot is aware of the problems with endocrine disruptors."

In February, before taking up his minister post, Hulot tested positive for 51 endocrine disruptors when Generations Futures asked seven environmentally-conscious personalities for hair samples.

Generations Futures had hoped the EU criteria would ban some 40 substances from the market, but expects the current set to apply to less than a handful.

Three of the major organisations of scientists and doctors caring for people with hormone-related conditions - the Endocrine Society, the European Society for Endocrinology and the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology - sent a letter to the commission and EU governments, ahead of the vote, saying that the criteria will fail to identify EDCs and will not secure a high level of health and environmental protection.

Over 461,000 Europeans have also signed a petition that called on member states to reject the commission’s proposal.

The chemical industry, however, is also unhappy with the criteria, which it says are flawed and will hit European farmers without providing additional protection for health and the environment.

Fifty substances would be taken off the market, according to the European Crop Protection Association, which urged the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, where member states sit, to use their veto rights against the criteria. The institutions have three months to examine the adopted text.

The EU commissioner for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, called on the same institutions to swiftly back the criteria and help to set up the first regulatory system of endocrine disruptors in the world.

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