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article imageBlocked EU paper could have banned pesticides worth billions

By Megan Hamilton     Feb 3, 2015 in Science
If a research paper done by the European Union that highlighted the risks of hormone-mimicking chemicals hadn't been blocked, as many as 31 pesticides worth billions of pounds may have been banned.
That's what The Guardian reported after reviewing the science paper. This paper recommends ways to identify and categorize endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that scientists have linked to increases in fetal abnormalities, genital mutations, infertility, and adverse health effects that range from cancer to IQ loss.
Sources within the commission say that the report was buried by top EU officials who were pressured by big chemical firms which use EDCs in toiletries, plastics, and cosmetics, despite an annual health cost that spirals in the hundreds of millions of euros, studies say.
The unpublished paper says that the risks associated with exposure, even to low-potency EDCs, is so hazardous that potency alone shouldn't serve as a basis when it comes to chemicals being approved for use. The criteria it proposed for categorizing EDCs, along with a strategy for implementing them, was intended to enable EU bans of hazardous substances beginning last year.
That didn't happen, however.
Instead, commission officials say that the criteria was blocked due to pressure from major chemical industry players — Bayer and BASF, for instance. In its place, less stringent options were proposed, along with a plan for an impact assessment that isn't likely to be finalized until 2016, per The Guardian.
"We were ready to go with the criteria and a strategy proposal as well but we were told to forget about it by the secretary general's office," one commission source told the Guardian. "Effectively the criteria were suppressed. We allowed the biocides and pesticides legislation to roll over."
In January 11 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Vytenis Andruikaitis, the health and food safety commissioner, that criticized the EU's failure to stand by its mandate and adopt the EDC criteria. This was supposed to have taken place by the end of 2013, but since it hasn't, court proceedings have been brought by Sweden, the European parliament and council.
Catherine Day, the secretary general of the EU, blamed the delay on poor communication between the commission's health (Sanco) and environment (Envi) departments. Both share responsibility for the file.
"They were working in different directions, which made no sense so the secretariat-general did intervene to force them to do a joint impact assessment with the aim of coming up with one analysis on which the commission could base itself," she said, per the Guardian.
"The commission is under no obligation to publish internal working papers," another commission spokesperson said. "As you know, the European commission acts in full independence and in the general European interest."
Then the mighty finger of blame pointed back at the secretary general.
"We had a lot of arguments with Sanco," a commission source said. "At one point, the secretary general intervened to halt the process and then basically it was just stopped. We were told that we and Sanco had to bang our heads together but when the two directorates eventually – and reluctantly – reached an agreement, even that was blocked by the secretary general."
"If the draft 'cut-off' criteria proposed by the commission had been applied correctly, 31 pesticides would have been banned by now, fulfilling the mandate of the pesticide regulation to protect humans and the environment from low-level chronic endocrine disrupting pesticide exposure," Angeliki Lyssimachou, an environmental toxicologist for the Pesticides Action Network Europe (PAN) told the Guardian.
So instead, the EU has apparently opted for a watered-down version.
Instead of the proposed identification of compounds that mimic hormones, the EU favors industry-supported options for potency-based measurements of EDCs. Thresholds would be set to delineate below which exposure to low-potency EDCs would be deemed safe, even if there haven't been any comprehensive tests undertaken for longer-term effects on humans.
As could be expected, industry and agriculture are fond of this approach, and are backed by the UK and a few German ministries. They argue that socio-economic effects of banning pesticides and biocides could ruin farming communities, The Guardian reports.
A study conducted last year by the National Farmers' Union estimated that withdrawing crop protection products could cost the UK farming industry 40,000 jobs and a £1.73bn fall in profits. That's equal to 36 percent of current levels.
However, a study conducted by PAN estimates that under the options currently being considered, no more than seven, and possibly as few as zero, pesticides would be withdrawn.
"In a worst-case scenario" said Jean-Charles Bocquet, director of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), his pesticides trade group believes that as many as 60 products on the market could still be slapped with an endocrine-disrupting label, and that could trigger their market withdrawal.
Many of these products are from the triazole family and represent more than 40 percent of the European market and have a value of €8-9bn (£6-6.8bn), according to ECPA.
"We have to consider endocrine disruptors with a small weight and low-potency effect in a way balanced between their risk and the potential benefit," Bocquet said, per the Guardian. "It is like if you have a very powerful car but it is driven carefully and safely then you will not hurt the operation with it," he said.
There's a further monkey wrench, however.
The commission's draft criteria say that because it can take decades of inter-generational research to assess the risks from EDCs. a more precautionary approach is wise.
The paper states that potency "is not relevant for the hazard identification. Potency on its own does not inform for high/low concern. Potency makes sense only if combined with exposure information and information on uncertainties."
The Guardian notes that risks from high doses of low-potency chemicals can be greater than that from low doses of high-potency ones, the paper states. "There is no scientific way to define the cut-off threshold. It is always a decision based on impacts."
So, what really, are we talking about here?
EDCs are commonly used in toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, plastics and pesticides and in terms of health, they cause hundreds of millions of euros of damage to EU citizens yearly, the first estimate of their economic impact reports, according to this article in The Guardian.
EDCs are thought to be extremely harmful to male reproductive health and have been known to cause testicular cander, infertility, deformation of the penis, and undescended testicles.
The news wasn't good for women, either.
Women whose bodies contain high levels of chemicals found in plastics, personal-care products, everyday household items, and the environment experience menopause up to four years earlier than women with lower levels of these EDCs, according to a new study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Science Daily reports. The findings were reported online on Jan. 28 in the journal PLOS ONE.
In the study, the researchers examined the levels of 111 chemicals in the blood and urine of 31,575 people, including 1,442 menopausal women who were tested for levels of EDCs. Their average age was 61, and none of the women were using estrogen-replacement therapies, nor did they have their ovaries surgically removed. The survey was designed in such a way that the women who had undergone chemical testing would represent a population of nearly nine million menopausal women. These nasty little chemicals are believed to interfere with the natural production and distribution of hormones.
While several smaller studies examined the link between endocrine-disrupting chemicals and menopause, the new research broadly explored the link between menopause and individual chemicals on a larger scale, and used a nationally representative sample of patients across the U.S.
"Chemicals linked to earlier menopause may lead to an early decline in ovarian function, and our results suggest we as a society should be concerned," Amber Cooper, MD, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a senior author of the study, told Science Daily.
Not only does a decline in ovarian function adversely affect fertility, it can also lead to earlier development of heart disease, osteoporosis, and other health problems. Certain cancers, metabolic syndrome, and early puberty are also linked to EDCs.
"Many of these chemical exposures are beyond our control because they are in the soil, water, and air," Cooper says. "But we can educate ourselves about our day-to-day chemical exposures and become more aware of the plastics and other household products we use."
People can do simple things, like microwaving food in glass or paper containers instead of plastic, she noted. They can also spend a bit of time learning more about the ingredients in cosmetics, personal-care products and food packaging.
Chemicals found by the researchers had fun names like dioxins/furans (from industrial combustion byproducts); phthalates (found in common household items, plastics, pharmaceuticals and personal-care products like lotions, perfumes, makeup, nail polish, liquid soap and hair spray); phytoestrogens (plant-derived estrogens); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, coolants); phenolic derivatives; organophosphate pesticides, and a ton of other tongue-twisty names, Science Daily reports.
Fifteen chemicals were the most worrisome, according to the researchers. Nine PCBs, three pesticides, two phthalates, and a furan (a toxic chemical). All of these warrant closer evaluation because they were associated with earlier menopause and may have detrimental effects on the ovaries.
"Earlier menopause can alter the quality of a woman's life and has profound implications for fertility, health, and our society," Cooper said. "Understanding how the environment affects health is complex. This study doesn't prove causation, but the associations raise a red flag and support the need for future research."
EU representatives paid attention to this study as well.
Pressure from the UK and German ministries accompanied by industry are to blame for the delay in public protection from chronic diseases and environmental damage, said Lisette van Vliet, a senior policy adviser to the Health and Environment Alliance, per The Guardian.
"This is really about whether we in the EU honestly and openly use the best science for identifying EDCs, or whether the interests of certain industries and two ministries or agencies from two countries manage to sway the outcome to the detriment of protecting public health and the environment," she said.
Obviously, relying on industries to guard the health of citizens is like asking the fox to guard the chickens.
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