1701 Endocrine disruptors

After several years of dithering and tension, the European Commission has just published a definition of endocrine disruptors which should make it possible to strengthen the protection against these many substances – the best known is Bisphenol A used in baby bottles – that are used daily but which have, or are suspected of having, harmful effects for humans. These products replace human hormones, causing damage especially to embryos and infants. The proposal of the European Commission has yet to be approved by the 28 countries and will be debated in the European Parliament. Many groups - including a majority of European parliamentarians - feel that the Commission, under the influence of lobbies, is ignoring the precautionary principle.




According to WHO, an endocrine disruptor is a substance (or a mixture) that modifies the functions of the hormonal system and consequently has harmful effects on health or reproduction, even at very low levels of exposure. Researchers speak of three categories, as with carcinogenic substances: certain, suspect and those that actively modify the hormonal system but may not be harmful to health. How do they work? According to biologist Gilles Bœuf, ‘all living organisms, from bacteria to humans, produce hormones whose purpose is to control the organs. An endocrine disruptor is a substance that imitates the hormone and aims to deceive [the organism].”


Health problems


Endocrine disruptors are present in many (at least 630) products used in everyday life.


  • They are found in toys, paint, cosmetics and food containers (cans, plastified wrappings containing phthalates…) and also in recycled, purified water (which has a well-known effect on animals)
  • They are also found in pesticides. Glyphosate (Roundup). the world’s most used herbicide, is under suspicion.
  • One of the best known, Bisphenol A, was banned by the EU from baby’s bottles in 2011. Only France has taken the extra step of also forbidding it from other food containers (in 2015).


These disruptors can lead to illnesses and abnormalities in both humans and animals.


Numerous studies have long shown that endocrine disruptors lower human fertility and bring on early puberty among girls.


Scientists and doctors are particularly alarmed at the harm they do to embryos. Researchers have discovered a link between these substances and the increase in cases of hypospadias, a congenital abnormality of the penis where the opening of the urethra is abnormally positioned.


For some years, endocrine disruptors have been thought to have harmful effects on the immune system and respiratory function in children and also to encourage diabetes and, consequently, obesity.


Some of these undesirable effects (e.g. the effect on reproduction) have been studied for many years and the substances have already been outlawed by the EU. Others were prohibited by the 2006 REACH agreement controlling chemical products, in particular their use in childcare products and toys.


The political problem

Since 2009, the European Commission has been working on a framework to regulate the use of endocrine disruptors. There has been a delay in defining the scientific criteria. Large companies and the TTIP negotiations fought the first regulations. The 28 countries of the EU do not agree with each other. The lobbies even succeeded in ousting the Commission's Directorate-General for the Environment, mandated to define the criteria and favourable to the application of the precautionary principle, in favour of the Directorate-General for Health.


A better balance needs to be found between the protection of human health and socio-economic interests.


The European Commission eventually published, on 7 December 2016, its long-waited proposals for the definition of endocrine disruptors, and hence a framework for them.


According to these criteria (which are based on those of the WHO) an endocrine disruptor is a substance that alters the function(s) of the hormonal system and consequently causes adverse health effects. The link therefore is proven.


In a communiqué, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, was delighted to announce that the putting forward of strict criteria for endocrine disrupters – based on science – would make the EU regulatory system the first worldwide to define such scientific criteria in legislation.


Unanswered issues


•    The criteria are considered to be too strict. The study of products has begun in several countries (USA, France, Switzerland, Belgium), but all suspect products should be subjected to the same tests on the human body as new drugs and the biological mechanism by which they act should be defined. It's impossible. In fact, toxic effects are most often proven on animals but not on humans. Less than 70 substances (out of 630 listed) could be banned if these criteria were adopted.


•    Not all endocrine disruptors are known. New tests are needed, for example to monitor more effectively the substances that act on the thyroid function.


•    How exactly does the dose affect the impact? What is the potential risk if there is a mixture of these substances?


•    There also appears to be a contradiction: while several European countries are pressing for the regulations to reduce the use of these chemical agents there does not seem to be an appropriate control system for imports.


Searches for a solution

Ongoing studies are continuing to improve testing and to define the impact of each suspect endocrine disruptor on health.

Many researchers are looking for alternatives to these suspect products, including packaging[1].


Unfortunately, from the political point of view, there is no consensus. The European Parliament seems determined not to accept the restrictive criteria, all the more as the Commission has added opportunities for dispensation that are deemed unacceptable. Moreover, since the States do not agree with each other, the Commission has had to withdraw its proposal for a vote for the time being.


Dr. Daveloose 

[1]               While awaiting the regulations, a researcher recommends us not to reheat in a microwave food in a plastic container or that has a plastic film over it; then wash these containers by hand rather than in the dishwasher.


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