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Hormone-disrupting chemicals are everywhere. Here’s what the EU should do to protect us

Have you ever noticed that some products say “paraben-free” and “phthalate-free” on their packaging? We tend to mentally award these products bonus points without knowing what those terms really mean.

Parabens, phthalates and other substances with unpronounceable names are part of a category of chemicals known as hormone- or endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs.

EDCs can be found in plastic, detergent, disinfectant, medical devices, toys, cosmetics, furniture, and many other things we come into contact with.

Scientists started raising the alarm about these dangerous chemicals more than 20 years ago. They found that these substances play havoc with the many crucial bodily processes in which hormones play a role.

Hormones are messengers. EDCs mimic, interfere with or block the messages, triggering abnormal processes in the human body. They cause major health conditions including infertility, cancer and diabetes, as well as compromising the immune system and the development of the brain.

The impact is not limited to humans: exposure to EDCs also has adverse effects on wildlife, including on population survival.

Annual costs related to exposure to EDCs were estimated to be €163 billion in the European Union.

Our natural instinct as consumers is to try to reduce exposure to these dangerous substances on an individual basis, perhaps by choosing products without parabens or phthalates.

But the truth is that it’s nearly impossible to shield ourselves from EDCs. They may be present in cosmetics, paints, toys, sofas and other everyday goods.

This is not a matter of individual action; it is a public health issue.

Beyond individual responsibility

That is where legislation comes in. Measures to reduce people’s exposure to EDCs need to be adopted at EU level in a way that genuinely combats the problem.

Dr Apolline Roger, chemicals project lead at ClientEarth, said: “Endocrine disruptors meddle with human and animal health with irreversible and serious effects. They are so deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives that no one can opt out of exposure. It’s the role of legislators to make sure that our exposure to hazardous chemicals like these is drastically reduced.

However, current EU rules are failing to protect people and wildlife from these dangerous chemicals. Serious gaps remain, and the current patchwork of different laws and regulations does not amount to a coherent approach.

Dr Roger added: “The truth is that endocrine disruptors are currently a blind spot in EU legislation. EU rules are at best patchy and ultimately inadequate when it comes to dealing with these misunderstood substances.”

The European Union has been sluggish in its approach. In 2019, instead of implementing much-needed protective measures, the EU Commission proposed yet another fitness check, which is just a review of current legislation.

Our lawyers are now urging EU institutions and Member States to integrate concrete, specific actions against EDCs. They have a legal and moral obligation to prevent harm to human health and the environment. The Commission promised to be ambitious in the upcoming Chemicals Strategy, which is part of the European Green Deal and aims at curbing the harmful effects of toxic chemicals on people and the environment. The time for action in now.

Three ways to properly shield us from EDCs

In our new report, our lawyers call on the EU to adopt three specific measures to stop EDCs entering our bodies and the environment:

  1. Act now on already identified EDCs – The EU institutions and States have restricted only a few of the many listed EDCs. EU law needs to catch up with existing scientific knowledge, and it is up to Member States or the Commission to address all these substances at once under the main EU chemical regulation, REACH.
  2. Systematically screen chemicals on the market for endocrine disrupting properties The EU has systems in place to detect the hazardous properties of chemicals on the market, but they fail to catch EDCs. The European Commission and the EU agencies have the power to fix this weakness.
  3. Amend existing laws and fill gaps – The European legislator needs to adopt a consistent set of rules specifically meant to deal with EDCs, as opposed to a patchwork of incomplete regulations. That would include for example the creation of a coordinated list of EDCs that would be continuously updated.
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Jorge Moncayo