Endocrine disruptors: EU review of the criteria for their identification

20 November 2014

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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Image from Flickr by Justus Blümer. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals in products such as pesticides and biocides that can interfere with human hormones. On 26 September 2014 the European Commission launched a consultation seeking views on how to define new criteria for regulating endocrine disruptors.

What are Endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are substances that can have negative effects on human and animal health by disturbing the functioning of hormones. Scientific assessments have shown that defects can include reduced fertility and reproductive abnormalities. Results show that they can act at very low doses and are particularly dangerous during pregnancy and in infancy. Effects can occur long after the exposure and after the substance has disappeared from the body. Combinations of the substances can have different effects to the same substances in isolation. The phenomenon of endocrine disruption was discovered about 20 years ago and since then extensive research has been undertaken. However, there are still large gaps in the scientific knowledge of endocrine disruption phenomena and consequently diverging views exist on specific points within the scientific community and regulators worldwide.

Endocrine disruptors include dioxins, PCBs, phthalates, parabens and bisphenol A. They can be found in plastics (including baby bottles and food packaging), food cans, furniture, cosmetics, shampoo, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and biocides.

EU Consultation

There is growing concern in the EU and worldwide about the possible negative impacts of endocrine disruptors on human health and the environment. The EU has introduced specific legislative obligations aimed at phasing out endocrine disruptors in water, industrial chemicals, plant protection products and biocides.

Although endocrine disruptors are referred to in existing sectoral EU legislation, no formal, unified criteria have been established for their definition, internationally or at the EU level. Under current pesticide and biocide rules Plant Protection Product Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 and Biocidal Products Regulation (EU) No 528/2012 the European Commission is empowered to specify scientific criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors. The Commission is now consulting on the details of the criteria to identify endocrine disruptors. The consultation will run until 19 January 2015. The Commission has published a roadmap detailing the proposed criteria.

Responses to the Consultation

The EU’s incoming Health Commissioner, Vytenis Adriukaitis, told MEPs in his hearing in the European Parliament on 30 September 2014 ‘We have to be very careful from a medical point of view as this issue can affect future generations’.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) supports the European Commission in defining scientific criteria for endocrine disruptors. EFSA endorses the WHO’s definition of an endocrine disruptor and highlights that not all endocrine active substances are endocrine disruptors. This depends on whether there is reasonable evidence that the substance can cause an adverse effect as a result of its interaction with the endocrine system.

The environmental NGO Pesticide Action Network (PAN) has shown concern about the consultation, saying the questions are too technical, excluding the general public from the debate. They argue that the Commission will only hear the voice of the industry and research experts.

PAN has also raised strong criticisms believing that the proposed roadmap ‘incorporates all the threats to cancel-out the effectiveness of the pesticide and biocide regulations to protect human health and the environment’. PAN endocrine disruptor expert Angeliki Lysimachou said:

we are highly concerned with the possibility of adding risk-assessment and socioeconomic elements in the evaluation of EDCs [endocrine disruptors] as the adverse effects of these compounds upon human health and the environment should not be evaluated with economic terms, since economy is not constructed to protect human health and as tiny exposures at the wrong moment in life may induce dramatic consequences.

Background information to the consultation and supportive documents can be found on the European Commission’s website.