ClientEarth lawyers have warned that people and wildlife will suffer exposure to pesticides that can cause hormone-related diseases if an attempt to illegally weaken European Union regulation is not blocked.
Under pressure from a number of member states, the European Commission has revived a push to water down rules that protect against endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in pesticides.
Endocrine disruptors play havoc with the hormonal messages that regulate the way the human body functions or develops, by mimicking, blocking or mistiming natural hormonal function. This increases the risk of adverse health effects, including non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, a reduction in IQ, attention deficit and hyperactivity in children and thyroid cancer.
While a new EU law strictly controlling the use of hormone-disrupting chemicals in pesticides was passed in 2009, it could not be fully enforced without criteria defining which substances can be considered as hormone-disrupting. After several years of heated, difficult and industry lobby-driven debates, these criteria were adopted.
These criteria will come into force within weeks, meaning that – finally – public authorities will be better able to adequately protect against harm from these chemicals. They will be banned for use unless the pesticides industry can prove that there will be ‘negligible exposure’. For example, use in a controlled environment, such as a greenhouse with workers using personal protection.
The Commission’s latest attack proposes wording that will allow ‘negligible risk’, which ClientEarth lawyers fear would end the current ban on open exposure, such as spraying in fields. Public health organisation Pesticides Action Network estimates the amendment will increase the presence of these harmful substances in our food by hundreds of thousands of times.
ClientEarth lawyer Dr Apolline Roger says the new wording – which will only benefit industry – is deeply troubling as it assumes that a safe level of exposure can be set. Yet even minuscule doses of EDCs can be dangerous. “In its latest push to weaken regulation of hormone-disruptors in pesticides, the European Commission is abandoning the strong protection offered by the current law, at the request of a small number of vocal member states.
“The proposal assumes a safe level of exposure, but even very low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may affect humans and wildlife. Such chemicals have been proven to increase the risk of certain cancers, impair neurological development and have serious impacts on human reproduction. For EDCs, we need laws which strongly favour prevention.”
Lawyers also slammed the Commission for overstepping its power and attempting to change rules that only EU legislators have the right to change.
Dr Roger added: “The Commission’s changes are in clear violation of its duty to protect humans, animals and the environment and an illegal overstep in powers reserved to the democratically elected Parliament and Council. It’s now up to member states and the Parliament to oppose the illegal amendment and ensure people and the environment continue to be protected.”
In 2016, the Commission first proposed the change, but its proposal was dropped the same year due to intense criticism from the Parliament, civil society and several member states.
Member State representatives will discuss the current amendment on October 23 and 24 in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed. If a majority approve the Commission’s proposal, the Parliament will then have the opportunity to veto it. The Parliament has already flagged its opposition, passing a resolution that the changes would be “against the letter and the spirit of the law”.
A timeline of EDC regulation
- 2009: European Parliament and Council ban the use of EDCs in pesticides.
- 2013: Deadline for the Commission to adopt the criteria to identify EDCs.
- May 2015: Journalist Stephane Horel reveals the extent of corporate lobbying from the pesticides industry to weaken EDC regulations.
- Dec 2015: Commission condemned by European Court for undue delay in adopting the criteria.
- 2016: Commission first proposes defining the EDC criteria, with the first version of the ‘negligible risk’ amendment. Was later dropped the same year. Commission promises to revisit it later to secure the vote of some member states.
- 2017: Revised criteria proposed by Commission and adopted by member states representatives. Parliament veto criteria because it is partly illegal.
- Dec 2017: Identification criteria agreement reached.
- July 2018: Commission revives its proposal to amend the pesticide regulation by introducing the concept of ‘negligible risk’. Changing this definition would affect the number of EDCs actually being regulated.