Endocrine Disruptors: The Secret History of a Scandal

To River Watch readers: Our website has had several articles in the past on the impacts of endocrine disruptors in streams and other waters of the USA. Most of these chemicals come from pharmaceutical sources released through normal waste discharge without being filtered or treated. What has been revealed is that, unlike many other potentially harmful chemicals, endocrines can pose harm at very small concentrations. This is Part 1 of 3.

June 8, 2016
By Stéphane Horel

Editors Note: This article was originally published by Le Monde on May 20. This version is translated by the Health and Environment Alliance and is republished with permission. We are also republishing other parts of the investigation: Le Monde’s interview with French Environment Minister Ségoléne Royal (Part 2) and doubt sown by Brussels’ industry-linked scientific community (Part 3).

Graphic by AUREL. Translation courtesy HEAL

This is one of the best kept secrets in Europe. It is locked up in the maze of corridors in the European Commission, in a guarded room that only about 40 accredited officials have the right to enter. And then only with paper and pen. Smartphones are not allowed.

This is a stricter safety protocol than even for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) between the European Union and the United States: If members of the European Parliament want to access TTIP documents they can enter the reading room without anyone checking the contents of their pockets.

The secret is a report of about 250 pages. Its title, in the jargon of the Commission, is “Impact Assessment.”

It assesses the “socio-economic” impact of regulations related to a group of chemical pollutants. Known as endocrine disruptors, these chemicals are capable of interfering with the hormones of animal species, including humans, and are believed to be the cause of many serious diseases: hormone-dependent cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, neurobehavioral disorders.

They are found in a multitude of consumer items, cosmetics, pesticides and plastics such as bisphenol A (or BPA). Whole sectors of industry will be affected by regulation of these chemicals in the medium term. Billions of euros are at stake.

Twists worthy of a TV series

The prospect of restrictions, perhaps even bans, raises serious worries among manufacturers. The pesticide industry has never hidden its hostility to the European regulation on “plant protection products,” from which originates a decision-making process with twists and turns worthy of a TV series.

Adopted by the European Parliament in 2009, the text provided for special treatment of pesticides: those recognized as endocrine disruptors would not be allowed on the market. But they must be able to be recognized.

In concrete terms, the job was to lay down criteria to identify these substances. Without the criteria, the law cannot be implemented.

The Commission was therefore obliged to find a way to distinguish endocrine disruptors from other chemicals. In concrete terms, its job was to lay down criteria to identify these substances. Without the criteria, the law cannot be implemented.

National health authorities, industry and NGOs are thus in suspended animation awaiting a decision on these criteria for identification—a regulatory tool that will then enable restrictions or, more radically, prohibitions on the use of certain endocrine disruptors.

Today, seven years later, these criteria still do not exist.

This impact assessment, with its highly confidential conclusions (as secret as the location of the fountain of youth), is largely responsible for this delay. It was not originally part of the plan, but industry called for it as a way to weaken the regulation.

It succeeded in early summer of 2013 after a lobbying blitzkrieg by pesticide and chemical industries working in tandem. Activities were coordinated mainly through their Brussels lobbying organizations: European Crop Protection Association and European Chemical Industry Council.

A hypersensitive file

The giants of agrochemicals—the two German heavyweights, BASF and Bayer, and the Swiss multinational, Syngenta—were also on the battlefield.

Commission Secretary General Catherine Day finally yielded to their request for an impact assessment on the basis of “divergent opinions” in the scientific community and “potential impacts on sectors of the chemical industry and international trade”—a direct reference to TTIP, on which negotiations were then just beginning.

In a July 2, 2013 memo, Day, then the highest European Union official, described the criteria for labeling endocrine disruptors as a “sensitive subject.”

Sensitive it stayed. And hypersensitive it became.

The European Parliament had given a deadline for the Commission to write these infamous criteria: December 2013. Not seeing anything coming, Sweden took the Commission to court. This move was supported by France, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands and also by the European Parliament and the European Council—a rare configuration.

The Court of Justice of the European Union did not delay in its response.

Just before Christmas 2015, it found that the Commission, which is the guardian of treaties, had “violated the law of the Union.” The judgment swept away the “alleged need for an impact assessment of the scientific criteria” that the Commission had placed at the heart of its defense.

But the same day, the spokesperson for Lithuanian Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European Commissioner for Health, announced bluntly that the impact study would still be carried through.

Already hypersensitive, the file became inflammable.

What cost of illness?

European parliamentarians are furious. Some have sent several letters to the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. These had no effect.

On January 13, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, wrote to Juncker: The Commission’s delay was “unacceptable.” Continuing the impact assessment, Schulz added, was “in defiance of the judgment” of the highest court of the EU, to which he asked the Commission to “comply without delay”. The message was repeated in a second letter on March 10.

Studies peg the health costs of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals between €157 billion and €288 billion.

Sweden, for its part, continues to keep up the pressure. In a document dated May 13 that Le Monde has obtained, Sweden curtly reminded the Commission that the Court “prohibits the use of economic considerations to define criteria.”

So what is the nature of the “economic considerations” contained in the pages of the impact study under lock and key?

In addition to the impact on the industry, will they take into account the cost of diseases related to exposure to endocrine disruptors in Europe, which was estimated by independent studies to be at between 157 billion and 288 billion euros per year?

The suspense will end on June 15. According to our sources, the final proposal on the criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors will be presented in a meeting of the College of European Commissioners that day.