Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Opinion

To beat cancer, Commission must first beat chemicals lobby

  • At the launch of the Beating Cancer plan, Ursula von der Leyen conceded 'the first issue we need to discuss is prevention – because prevention is the best cure that we currently have.' (Photo: 04/02/2020)

A fierce lobby battle has been raging within the European Commission over the upcoming Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS).

This biggest chemical reform in the 15 years since the EU's REACH legislation is set to be announced on Wednesday (14 October).

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The importance of the CSS lies not only in the fact that it is an essential part of commission president Ursula von der Leyen's Green Deal. But even more importantly it will greatly impact upon the commission's ambitious EU4Health Programme and Beating Cancer Plan.

The Beating Cancer Plan was announced on 4 February, World Cancer Day; the disease is the second biggest killer in the EU.

The plan is to be rolled out towards the end of the year and will also be a priority focus for the European Parliament, considering the brand new special committee on beating cancer, and the cancer intergroup.

At the launch von der Leyen said: "In fact, there is much more we can do than we are currently doing [to beat cancer]" and that "the first issue we need to discuss is prevention – because prevention is the best cure that we currently have. Science tells us that 40 percent of cancer cases are preventable."

Enter the proposed Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and particularly the regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

For two decades the EU has failed to properly regulate these chemicals ‒ exposure to which is strongly linked to many serious health conditions, including cancer ‒ thanks to industry influence and a recalcitrant commission, as Corporate Europe Observatory has documented.

And the impact of this is clear; today less than 20 EDCs have been identified under present EU laws - despite the fact that citizens are exposed to thousands of such chemicals.

Shockingly, earlier this month (1 October) the media reported on how the von der Leyen Commission's own health department (DG Sante) had become "the single biggest roadblock to the strategy".

To have persuaded officials with a remit to protect public health that tougher chemicals reform will impede health shows the long-term impact of the chemicals, pesticides, and pharma industry lobbies.

In fact, industry has been active across the commission.

Less 'definitive and committing'

Corporate Europe Observatory has reported on internal documents showing the cosy relations between DG Grow (the Commission's industry department) and the chemicals industry.

The notes from a meeting between DG Grow officials and CEFIC (the European Chemical Industry Council, one of Brussels' biggest lobbies) in June 2020 indicate industry's preference for sticking with the present arrangement for handling EDCs.

Similar messages were conveyed to DG Sante officials in another meeting in June, while CEFIC's discussion paper on EDCs argued that the current REACH system is adequate to identify and assess EDCs, and that no new classification process is required.

Nonetheless, CEFIC's lobbying and that of other industry groups, has been reflected in the comments by Grow and Sante on the draft CSS.

Grow wished to blunt ambition in the strategy by demanding that the language used in the CSS "should be less definitive and committing" and instead "replaced with words referring to assessing, exploring" etc.

Sante also is opposed to the tougher action proposed on EDCs and instead prefers more "conditional" language.

It is urgent to tackle the scourge of EDCs. Research has shown that exposure to EDCs in Europe leads to healthcare costs of over €160bn annually ‒ this is likely to be a conservative estimate.

One specific and notable sub-group of EDCs (per and polyfluoroalkylsubstances or PFAS) which is associated with damage to the thyroid gland and immune system, has been linked to annual health-related costs of exposure of €52-84bn alone across the European Economic Area.

Last month (29 September) 10 member states' ministers demanded a strong CSS including action to tackle EDCs as part of a "green transition to a toxic-free circular economy for a healthy planet and healthy people".

If von der Leyen and her commission are serious about beating cancer, they first need to beat the toxic chemicals lobby, and publish a Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability that truly prioritises public health over corporate profits.

Author bio

Vicky Cann and Hans van Scharen are a campaigners with Corporate Europe Observatory.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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