Endocrine disrupting chemicals on the menu

July 2015
Photo Creative Commons
As human fertility plummets, and cancer, diabetes and obesity soar relentlessly upwards, attention is on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) as a possible major player.

EDCs can mimic, block or alter the level of hormones. Hormones are, of course, vital to many processes in the body. Their disturbance is harmful to health, and can cause irreversible damage at key stages of development.

Exposure to EDCs comes from their wide use in the manufacture of plastics, cosmetics, carpets, computers and construction materials. A special concern, however, is pesticides. Pesticidal chemicals are intimately present in our food, water and air, but despite this they've never been tested for endocrine-disrupting effects.

Under the EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) regulations, industry is obliged to prove the safety of chemicals and to provide information about their properties and effects.

However, moves by the EU to address the EDC problem have met with stiff opposition from the industries which use them. Recent evidence that the Roundup herbicide used on, and accumulated by, most GM crops is an EDC and probable carcinogen has made the agrichemical industry especially antagonistic.

As was appropriate, the European Commission (EC) delegated the EDC issue to its Directorate General for the Environment (DG Env) whose remit includes the prevention of chemical pollution of our air, water and food chain, and the improvement of our knowledge of the toxicity of chemicals.

DG Env commissioned an expert review of the science on EDCs by a consortium led by Andreas Kortenkamp, Professor of Human Toxcology at Brunel University London. Professor Kortenkamp specialises in risk assessment of chemicals cocktails, EDCs and hormonal cancers, and has carried out extensive prior work with the EC, UK Food Standards Agency, and World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Kortenkamp Report and a subsequent expert working group highlighted that the hormonal system is extremely complex and EDCs can highjack it in many different (and largely unknown) ways. It argued that the EU was simply not equipped with the right kind of tests to identify EDCs or pick up their effects. As a starting point, it recommended a list of complementary criteria for identifying EDCs.

A year later, the WHO and the UN Environment Programme published an authoritative report which concluded much the same things as Kortenkamp: traditional chemical risk assessment is not suitable for EDCs and, unlike straightforward toxins, safe thresholds cannot be established for them.

Realising that Kortenkamp's criteria and the absence of any safe level would spare very few of their pesticidal products from the axe, industry launched the all-too-familiar lobbyist attacks: dramatic figures promised dire economic impacts from the loss of their pesticides, while orchestrated critiques were rushed out to undermine the science on EDCs.

It's a sign of how scared the industry of finding its major moneyspinners are EDCs that it succeeded in putting together a spectacular rebuttal which got a spectacular airing. It was signed by 56 scientists and sent to Europe's Chief Scientific Advisor, Anne Glover. The following month the rebuttal was published online along with a suitably supportive editorial signed by a further 18 editors, and subsequently republished in no less that 14 journals.

Glover obediently demanded explanations from DG Env on its process for reviewing EDCs, giving the intended impression that there were legitimate reasons to doubt the DG's work.

However, a few months later, Glover did something constructive about the issue, and more in line with her role as Chief Scientific Advisor: she brought DG Env critics and EDC experts together to talk. The outcome was a signed consensus statement that "it is possible that thresholds (for EDCs) do not exist" and " it is not possible to define thresholds (for EDCs) only by experiments in whole organisms due to lack of sensitivity"*.

*To establish a 'safe' threshold, toxins are fed to animals in increasing doses to measure at what concentration ill-effects are seen. In the case of EDCs, these ill-effects are too dependent on other factors, such as developmental stage or health status, to be certain there is any level which is safe for all those who will be exposed.

In the house, an initiative led by a Swedish MEP secured a resolution that the precautionary principle be applied to EDCs.

You might think that with EC expert scientists , the WHO, a Chief Scientific Advisor-led debate which included erstwhile detractors, a majority MEP vote, and (as has emerged through Freedom of Information requests) in-house misgivings, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would have to admit that EDCs present unique problems which can't be solved like any other ones. But no, the EFSA opinion remained that EDCs "can be treated like most other substances of concern for human health and the environment i.e. be subject to risk assessment and not only to hazard assessment"*

*The latter point is important, because it establishes that EDCs can be considered to be safe
below a defined threshold, rather than what the experts are saying which is that they may
well be hazardous at any level.

Since then, DG Env has been taken off the EDC case and Glover is out of a job, the WHO and MEPs are being side-lined, and the pesticide industry lobby has demanded and got secret impact assessments for its wares. The 'secret' will enable the pesticides assessed to be selected without alerting the public which ones are causing concern (and will presumably prevent interference from pesky anti-pesticide lobbyists, inconvenient expert opinions, votes in parliament, or debates).

The impact assessments mean that there will be a delay in EDC legislation until at least the latter half of 2016. No doubt the pesticide lobby has its fingers crossed that before any EDC legislation can be put in place, the whole question will have been superceeded by the TTIP [1]. Europe may then be bound to accept American EDCs whether it likes them or not.

If all this sounds like a travesty of democracy, the reality is actually much worse. The TTIP negotiations are troubled by increasing critical public debate and resistance, and this concern has been reflected by MEPs. English Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato, has reported that Brussels recently simply cancelled a vote on TTIP when it realised negotiations would be stalled due to mounting resistance amongst MEPs.

There are two lights at the end of this tunnel. One is that Sweden is suing the EC over its failure to establish criteria for EDCs; the case is supported by an overwhelming majority of Member States (the UK abstained). Another is that TTIP must, eventually, receive a vote of approval in the European Parliament, and at that point it can be vetoed by any Member State in the Council of Ministers.


Tell, and keep telling, your MEP to act in accordance with scientific opinion and in the interests of public health and get EDCs at any level out of your food.

Support all action against TTIP: it's designed to promote business at the expense of your health.


[1] HERE'S A TTIP - November 2014

  • St├ęphane Horel, A Toxic Affair, Corporate Europe Observatory May 2015
  • EU health policy on endocrine disruption collatral damage in Commission health service SANTE's power play, Pesticide Action Network Europe, 20.05.15
  • Andreas Kortenkamp,
  • DG Environment Fact Sheet, September 2010
  • Molly Scott Cato, MEP's mounting TTIP opposition scandalously silenced ahead of knife-edge US vote, 12.06.15

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