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Battle to regulate hormone disruptors in limbo after EU push fails

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A pregnant woman poses in Los Angeles. On Tuesday 28 February, the EU Commission postponed a vote on hormone disruptors, linked to infertility. Wikimedia Commons/David Roseborough

Scientists and consumer groups have criticised the European Commission for postponing a long-awaited vote on identifying hormone disrupting chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors. The chemical substances in everyday goods -- from toys, to paint to make-up -- have been linked to an array of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and infertility.


The European Commission was meant to present its criteria for identifying how chemicals interfere with the hormone systems of animals and people back in December 2013.

More than three years later, health and environment advocates are still waiting.

"The longer you delay, the more there are health consequences and environmental consequences happening to people now," Lisette Van Vliet, a Senior Policy Officer on Chemicals and Health at the Health and Environment Alliance in Brussels (HEAL) told RFI by phone on Wednesday.

Her comments come after EU member countries failed to pass a revised proposal for defining what endocrine disruptors are. This would have allowed the bloc to develop regulations to limit their health risks.

"Hurry the heck up we've always said, we need to hurry. But we've also said, this should not be at the expense of getting the criteria right and that means the criteria has to be viable, not overly perfectionistic the way they're setting them up right now," Van Vliet added.

Burden of proof too high

She argues the Commission's draft proposal, irrespective of whether or not it passed, sets the bar ridiculously high for a chemical to be identified as an endocrine disruptor.

"The wording that they used between the version they put out in June [2016] and the version they have now still requires a high level of proof. It's a level of proof much higher than if you were trying to prove that something was carcinogenic."

Known to cause cancer and other hormone-disrupting disorders such as infertility and diabetes, endocrine disruptors are chemicals found in about everything from toys to computer keyboards, electrical cables and shopping receipts.

Their wide use is increasingly worrying consumers.

"We need to do more to lower the exposure of people to these evil chemicals because they can be contained in a lot of consumer products," Sylvia Maurer, the sustainability chief of European consumer group BEUC told RFI.

"The fact that there is no agreement should now really be the last warning signal to the European Commission that they have to present something better, which not only would include the known but the presumed endocrine disruptors, which doesn't require such a high burden of proof to regulate."

Pressure from lobbies

But regulation that could undercut big business, and potentially pesticide companies, is highly controversial, and pressure from lobby groups is high.

'We should have broad criteria that includes not only the most obvious hormone disruptors but also those about which we need to find out more," continues Maurer.

"That is very much contested by the industry, and they are doing a very aggressive lobbying here in Brussels to make sure this doesn't happen."

Van Vliet for her part, says there are a lot of vested interests at stake: "The industry sector, both the chemicals and manufacturers are looking at this and saying if my product gets identified as an EDC, then I've lost my authorization to have them on the market, and we've lost our income."

The European Commission has dismissed claims it's tied to any lobby groups.

"The Commission was really adamant in being fast and accurate to present some proposals," spokesperson Enrico Brivio told RFI.

"We had of course met all interested stake holder groups, but there was no one pressured by the industry at all. We wanted to propose to legislators policies based on science."

Complicated science

The Commission was sued in 2014 for taking so long to figure something out and today bases its definition of the hormone disrupting chemicals on that of the World Health Organization.

"It is normal that it is a bit complicated, we have 28 member states with different opinions, France we know is very critical and very restrictive, other member states are less and think our proposal is too strict," explains Brivio.

"We have to find the right balance and most of all have a science based decision."