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Endocrine disrupters: the secret history of a scandal

Le Monde | 20.05.2016 à 09h16 | By Stéphane Horel

This is a translation of an article in Le Monde article by Stéphane Horel entitled ’Perturbateurs endocriniens : l’histoire secrète d’un scandale’, translated by the Health and Environment Alliance on 20 May 2016. This article is not to be published by third parties without permission from Le Monde.



This is one of the best kept secrets in Europe. It is locked up somewhere in the maze of corridors in the European Commission, in a guarded room that only about 40 accredited officials have the right to enter. And then only with paper and pen. Smartphones are not allowed. This is a stricter safety protocol than even for transatlantic free trade agreement (or TTIP) between the European Union and the United States: If Members of the European Parliament want to access TTIP documents they can enter the reading room without anyone checking the contents of their pockets.

The secret is a report of about 250 pages. Its title, in the jargon of the Commission, is "Impact Assessment". It assesses the "socio-economic" impact of regulations related to a group of chemical pollutants. Known as endocrine disrupters, these chemicals are capable of interfering with the hormones of animal species, including humans, and are believed to be the cause of many serious diseases (hormone-dependent cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, neuro-behavioral disorders ...). They are found in a multitude of consumer items, cosmetics, pesticides and plastics (such as bisphenol A - BPA). Whole sectors of industry will be affected by regulation of these chemicals in the medium term. Billions of Euros are at stake.

Defining criteria

The prospect of restrictions, perhaps even bans, raises serious worries among manufacturers. The pesticide industry has never hidden its hostility to the European Regulation on "plant protection products", from which originates a decision-making process with twists and turns worthy of a TV series. Adopted by the European Parliament in 2009, the text provided for special treatment of pesticides: those recognised as endocrine disruptors would not be allowed on the market. But they must be able to be recognised.

The Commission was therefore obliged to find a way to distinguish endocrine disrupters from other chemicals. In concrete terms, its job was to lay down criteria to identify these substances. Without the criteria, the law cannot be implemented. National health authorities, industry and NGOs are thus in suspended animation awaiting a decision on these criteria for identification – a regulatory tool which will then enable restricting or, more radically, prohibiting the use of certain endocrine disrupters. Today, seven years later, these criteria still do not exist.

It is this impact assessment, with its highly confidential conclusions (as secret as the location of the fountain of youth), which is largely responsible for this delay. It was not originally part of the plan but industry called for it as a way to weaken the Regulation and then achieved its desire in early summer of 2013 after a lobbying blitzkrieg by pesticide and chemical industries working in tandem. Activities were coordinated mainly through their Brussels lobbying organizations: European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) and European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).

A hypersensitive file

The giants of agrochemicals were also on the battlefield: both the two German heavyweights, BASF and Bayer and the Swiss multinational, Syngenta. The Commission’s Secretary General Catherine Day finally yielded to their request for an impact assessment on the basis of "divergent opinions" in the scientific community and the "potential impacts on sectors of the chemical industry and international trade" - a direct reference to TTIP, on which negotiations were then just beginning. In an internal memo dated 2 July 2013, Ms Day, the then highest European Union official, described the criteria for endocrine disruptors as a "sensitive subject". Sensitive, it stayed. And hypersensitive, it became.

The European Parliament had given a deadline for the Commission to write these infamous criteria: December 2013. Not seeing anything coming, Sweden had decided to take the Commission to court. This move was supported by France, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands and also by the Parliament and the Council - a rare configuration.

The Court of Justice of the European Union did not delay in its response. Just before Christmas 2015, it found that the Commission, which is after all the guardian of the treaties, had "violated the law of the Union". The judgement swept away the "alleged need for an impact assessment of the scientific criteria" that the Commission had placed at the heart of its defence. But the same day, the spokesperson of the European Commissioner for Health, the Lithuanian Vytenis Andriukaitis announced bluntly that the impact study would still be carried through. Already hypersensitive, the file became inflammable.

What cost of illness?

The European parliamentarians are furious. Some of them have already sent several letters to the President of the Commission. These had no effect. On 13 January, the President of the Parliament wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker. The Commission’s delay was "unacceptable", underlined Martin Schulz. Equally, continuing the impact assessment was "in defiance of the judgment" of the highest court of the EU, to which he asked the Commission to "comply without delay". The message was repeated in a second letter on 10 March. Sweden, for its part, continues to keep up the pressure. In a document dated 13 May that Le Monde has obtained, Sweden curtly reminds the Commission services that the Court "prohibits the use of economic considerations to define criteria”.

So what is the nature of the "economic considerations" contained in the pages of the impact study under lock and key? In addition to the impact on the industry, will they take into account the cost of diseases related to exposure to endocrine disruptors in Europe, which was estimated by independent studies to be at between 157 billion and 288 billion euros per year (University of Utrecht, 2016)? The suspense will end on 15 June. According to our sources, the final proposal on the criteria for the identification of endocrine disrupters will be presented in a meeting of the college of European Commissioners that day.

Stéphane Horel
Journalist for Le Monde

Last updated on 23 May 2016

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