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Endocrine disturbers: sacrificing health to trade?

Mathilde Dupré, 2 June 2017

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For nearly seven years, the European Union has tried to legislate against endocrine disruptors. Amid intense debate surrounding the impact of these new measures, a number of recent studies have shown that the EU’s trading partners, notably the United States and Canada, significantly influenced the committee’s work on this issue.

Endocrine disturbers: sacrificing health to trade?

Mathilde Dupré, January 30, 2017

Article published by Alternatives économiques, 12/01/2017

By voting on January 12 to approve the ratification of CETA, the free trade treaty between the European Union and Canada, members of the European Parliament’s environment committee have missed an excellent opportunity to weigh in on trade negotiations in order to advance environmental and health regulations. For nearly seven years, the European Union has tried to legislate against endocrine disruptors. Amid intense debate surrounding the impact of these new measures, a number of recent studies have shown that the EU’s trading partners, notably the United States and Canada, significantly influenced the committee’s work on this issue.

Endocrine disruptors are chemical substances found in numerous products that interfere with our hormonal systems. They are found in food, wrapping, cleaning products, cosmetics, furniture, and so on. The connection between exposure to these substances and a large number of disorders such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility, and brain development problems has been clearly established. Within the EU, their estimated cost to society is believed to amount to 160 billion euros in additional health costs each year. According to expert opinion, the best way to eliminate this problem would be to prevent exposure to these substances through tougher regulations.

Towards European legislation?

In 2009, the European Parliament approved new regulations for pesticides that banned from the market products identified as endocrine disruptors, except in cases when exposure was deemed negligible. To implement this text, the European Commission was required to formulate, by the end of 2013, proposals that would define criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors. Due to its inaction, the Commission was condemned by the Court of Justice of the European Union in December 2015.

One must admit that Commission encountered many obstacles along its path. In early 2013, a first set of definitions was issued by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment, which at the time was in charge of the dossier. Vigorously denounced by industrialists, this proposal was abandoned in the summer of 2013 and the dossier was withdrawn from the Environment DG’s purview. Not until June 2016 was another, far less ambitious proposal submitted. It introduced a new method for assessing the risk of endocrine disruptors, on a case-by-case basis following their arrival on the market, as well as exemptions based on “negligible risk following exposure” rather than “negligible exposure,” thus introducing a significant loophole into the system.

An investigation by Le Monde published in late December revealed that the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety had, in September 2012, already determined that it would not follow the Parliament’s recommendations relating to product assessment and would try to influence the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Thus the conclusions issued by this organization in March 2013, and on which the European Commission’s proposal drew considerably, had in fact been reached in late 2012, before it had even begun its work. Le Monde further indicated that the EFSA deliberately chose to disregard a joint report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program published in April 2013, which recommended treating disruptors as a “global threat that needs to be resolved.” The study also addressed efforts made by the private sector to convince the Commission that this issue was the object of scientific controversy. They constitute a full blown attempt to “manufacture doubt,” which was denounced in an editorial published on the same day as the study by around a hundred researchers. In their view, this “distortion of scientific proof by industry-financed actors” closely resembles practices associated with the tobacco industry and climate change deniers.

Pesticide producers on the offensive

The Commission’s proposal is a long way from being approved. In a letter to Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis in September 2016, the chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee expressed concern that the Commission would exceed its competencies by proposing legal acts that modified “essential features” of the regulations initially adopted by parliament. France, Sweden, and Denmark confirmed this warning in a note from December 2016. The final proposal, which was examined on December 21, 2016, was, moreover, further weakened by proposals made by Hungary and Germany. Both countries suggested additional exemptions for pesticides that had been deliberately conceived as endocrine disruptors to act on the sloughing and growth of harmful entities (insects or plants), at the request of major pesticide producers such as BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta. Lacking the support of the 28 member countries, notably France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, they were not approved.

A race against the clock has now begun. The European Commission has in fact recognized that its decision to limit the impact of regulations intended to protect people from endocrine disrupters was influenced by pressures from the EU’s trading partners, with whom it was negotiating. At stake for these countries is the possibility of exporting food and other products to the European market, despite the fact that their own protection norms are weaker. In an internal note from August 2015, the Commission speaks of an “aggressive and well-orchestrated attack” by the United States, Canada, and other countries. Insisting that this measure represented an obstacle to trade, the opposition from these countries clearly suggested the risk of trade action.

American and Canadian Pressure

According to the same investigation by Le Monde, the United States, beginning in late June 2013, exerted pressure within the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the committee dealing with technical obstacles to trade, with encouragement from American lobbyists and the pesticide industry (CropLife America). Canada, along with other countries, then joined the United States in its battle against the EU’s overly protective approach. Since March 2015, Ottawa has, for its part, continuously challenged this approach at every WTO meeting.

In July 2016, a month after new criteria were published, the European Commission officially acknowledged, before the ambassadors of concerned partner countries (Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), that it had no mandate to deviate from the approach defined in the pesticide regulations, which are based on the precautionary principle. But it sought to offer reassurance by showing that the exceptions introduced into the proposal were intended as a “response to concerns expressed by the ambassadors.”

If the goal of reaching a trade agreement with Canada and the United States led the Commission to water down its proposal in order to appear conciliatory, is it still be possible to definitively adopt effective and constraining regulations now that these accords have been ratified?

This was the question posed by 35 NGOs to the members of the European Parliament’s environment committee, when, on January 12, they voted on the agreement between the European Union and Canada, prior to the full parliament’s vote in mid-February. When CETA goes into effect, it could well place the EU in an even weaker situation and require it to give priority to commercial interests over public health and environmental concerns. The letter’s signatories fear that the agreement’s provisions concerning technical barriers to trade (chapter 4), health and phytosanitary measures (chapter 5), and regulatory cooperation (chapter 21) could enhance Canada’s influence over the European decision-making process relating to endocrine disruptors as well as many other realms. The agreement would, moreover, give Canada and Canadian-based companies (such as Monsanto) new tools for directly challenging European or member-state regulations in this domain.

The stakes: a European standard for citizens’ protection

The European Union’s initiative against endocrine disruptors is particularly important, in that it represents a first attempt to propose a legal definition of these substances. Through this unprecedented regulation, it thus has the opportunity to set a new standard for citizens’ protection that could impose itself on the rest of the world. Yet what will become of the European measures currently under discussion if CETA, ratified by the European Parliament in February, goes into effect on March 1?

While nothing is written in stone, the revelations of transatlantic pressures relating to these measures make it reasonable to assume the worst. They illustrate, in any case, how current trade negotiations play a role in undermining efforts to advance environmental and health regulations. When they are consulted on the ratification of CETA, members of the European Parliament’s environment committee will have an opportunity to demand a completely different approach. By giving the text the go-ahead, they have given up on the idea of subjecting European trade policy to respect for the environment, the imperative of fighting climate change, and the promotion of human rights.

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