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France names pesticides with hormone disruptors after EU compromise

French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot s Patrick Kovarik/AFP

France has published two lists of pesticides containing endocrine disruptors, chemicals that have been blamed for the rise in cancers, diabetes and fertility problems. The lists are based on European Union criteria agreed on 4 July after the new French government dropped the previous government's objection that they were not tough enough.

The lists, which are not exhaustive, contain the names of about 1,000 products such as insecticides, wood protection treatments, herbicides and fungicides, which are likely to contain endocrine disruptors.

They do not ban their sale but simply inform the public of possible risks.

The publication follows an EU agreement on criteria for identifying endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on 4 July after a battle that lasted several years and saw France switching sides after the election of President Emmanuel Macron.

Some NGOs have welcomed the publication of the lists but complained that they do not go far enough.

What is an endocrine disruptor?
  • ECDs are chemicals that interfere with the production of hormones.
  • Hormones regulate the body's growth, metabolism and sexual development.
  • ECDs have been linked to a number of illnesses, including cancers, diabetes, infertility, the feminising of males and the masculinising of females, as well as learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.
  • ECDs are present in pesticides and household insecticides but also in everyday products such as cosmetics, paint, detergents, plastic and even some medicines.
  • They can be toxic even at very low levels of exposure and can enter our bodies via the skin, breathing, drinking or eating.
  • A woman can transmit them to her child through the placenta or breast milk.

How did France's position change?

The EU's criteria were finally agreed on 4 July after several years of wrangling.

In fact, Sweden sued the European Commission because it missed the deadline for publishing its proposals by three years, finally doing so in 2016.

France, backed by Sweden and Denmark, had been lobbying for three broad sets of criteria based on scientists' level of certainty of hazard - "verified", "presumed" and "suspected" - without taking into account a substance's potency or the amount required for it have an effect on humans.

Germany and its powerful chemicals lobby objected and insisted on judging hazard, exposure and potency jointly.

The EU chemical industry association, CEFIC, said that items such as cafeine and soybean proteins could be idenfied as ECDs if the French proposal was adopted.

Royal took tough stance

Socialist environment minister Ségolène Royal had taken a tough stance on the question but her replacement, former ecology campaigner Nicolas Hulot, dropped her objections, leading to the commission's proposal winning a working majority.

In the run-up to the decision a joint statement by the three bodies representing endocrine scientists issued a joint statement to try to prevent a French change, which complained about "arbitrary exemptions" for some chemicals and claiming that the criteria "cannot be called science-based".

Nevertheless, Hulot hailed the EU decision as an advance.

"We've won the battle but not the war," he commented.

French NGO Générations Futures praised the government for keeping its promising in publishing its list but said it was not sufficiently precise and called for about 40 products to be banned.

"This list is too limited," was the comment of Charlotte Lepître of France Nature Environnement.