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Results from a new survey published by the Belgian Independent Health Insurance Funds (Mutualités Libres / Onafhankelijke Ziekenfondsen) reveal nearly half of Belgian citizens have little knowledge of what endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are and how they can impact our health, despite having daily habits like heating up food in plastic containers that could increase their exposure to these harmful hormone disruptors [1].

The results of the survey – conducted amongst 1000 Belgian citizens – are released at a time when the Belgian federal government and regional authorities are working on a national action plan to limit exposure to EDCs [2]. The Independent Health Insurance Funds will bring the issue of endocrine disrupters to the forefront during their annual symposium, which they are organising together with the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) on 19 November [3].

Survey shows citizens have little knowledge about harmful substances yet expect safe products

The survey suggests 60% consumers are still far from being sufficiently aware of the potential health risks related to EDCs. In fact, 48% say they have never heard of endocrine disruptors at all. One in three (36%) say they are aware of the presence of harmful substances in pesticides. The fact that plastic packaging materials, care products and toys can also contain EDCs is less well known [4].

The Mutualités Libres and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) have published an easy-to-use infographic with 10 tips on how to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals in and around your home. Download in English, French or Dutch.

The results of the survey also confirm that many citizens’ daily habits could increase their exposure to harmful endocrine disruptors. For example:

  • 61% of those surveyed heat up their food in plastic containers.
  • 64% do not consider what substances are present when buying cosmetics.
  • 50% do not wash new clothes before use.

Moreover, the survey shows citizens do assume the products they find in stores are safe, and are expecting public authorities to act:

  • Safe products: 3 out of 4 respondents (73%) already assume that only products that do not contain potentially dangerous substances are allowed on the Belgian market.
  • Enacting bans is most important measure: 59% of people classed ‘banning dangerous substances’ among the two most important measures they expect from the government.
  • Increasing public awareness: Other measures that seem important are support for European initiatives to reduce the use of endocrine disrupters and the launch of awareness campaigns on the presence of these harmful substances.
  • Need for better information: 21% of those questions confirm to have looked up information about EDCs and 50% have researched details on specific chemicals mentioned on labels. Respondents indicated they find it important that the information they find comes from a reliable source and is easy to understand.

Recommendations and proposals of the Independent Health Insurance Funds

According to the Belgian Independent Health Insurance Funds, public authorities and policies have an important role to play in reducing our exposures to harmful hormone disruptors. The Belgian action plan will be extremely useful for this purpose.

It is essential to inform Belgians and raise their awareness about hormone disruptors, because today they are insufficiently informed about the health risks at play”, stresses Xavier Brenez, General Director of the Mutualités Libres / Onafhankelijke Ziekenfondsen. “It is clearly a complex issue and health insurance funds have an important role to play towards their members and the public to help spread clear and understandable messages, which help people act on their exposure. Three out of four people surveyed also expect doctors, pharmacists or gynaecologists to inform them about hormone disrupters.”

Equally important is policies to prevent exposure in the first place and greater use of safer alternatives is a must. Most chemicals on the market today have not been tested for endocrine disrupting properties [5]. Brenez said: “There is also a need for a clear legal framework in Belgium, with a focus on protecting public health. Agreements must be made between the different authorities – federal and regional – so that a uniform policy can be pursued”. Moreover, Belgium can play a pioneering role in Europe: the Senate already recommended in 2018 that Belgium should set a good example.

In October, the European Commission presented the European Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability; the most ambitious chemical policy initiative in 20 years and a once-in-a-decade opportunity to rethink Europe’s approach to the management of chemicals, including endocrine disruptors.

The new European Chemicals Strategy is a golden ticket to address and speed up action to end our exposure to health-harming endocrine disrupting chemicals, provided it is implemented quickly and properly”, stresses Genon K. Jensen, Executive Director at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “National governments can also play a leadership role to protect our health, by supporting and implementing EU laws and policies”.

Contact:

Lies Dobbelaere, Press Officer at Mutualités Libres / Onafhankelijke Ziekenfondsen, lies.dobbelaere@mloz.be

Ivonne Leenen, Communications Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), ivonne@env-health.org

Notes to editor:

[1] A new position paper on endocrine disrupting chemicals, outlining policy recommendations and objectives for the Belgian federal and regional governments, published by Independent Health Insurance Funds, is available from https://www.mloz.be/sites/default/files/events/position_paper_mutualites_libres_endocrine_disruptors_1.pdf

Endocrine disruptors are chemical substances (or mixtures thereof) that are not produced by the human body. They can disrupt the functioning of our hormone system and are therefore harmful to our health. Daily exposure to endocrine disrupters can lead to reproductive disorders, development dysfunction, behavioural disorders, thyroid problems, low birth weight, diabetes and obesity, asthma, breast and prostate cancers. The health costs of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals are estimated to be at least 163 billion Euros per year in Europe.

[2] https://www.health.belgium.be/en/endocrine-disruptors

[3] https://www.env-health.org/save-the-date-heal-and-belgian-independent-health-insurance-funds-to-organise-symposium-on-endocrine-disruptors/

[4] The survey shows that those who have more knowledge about EDCs are more concerned and more willing to change their behaviour. For example, a large majority of survey respondents are prepared to change their behaviour, especially if it requires little or no extra effort. Switching to environmentally-friendly alternatives (e.g. cleaning products or fruit and vegetables) is often mentioned. For example, 59% of respondents already peel non-organic fruit and vegetables, and 31% are prepared to make the effort in the future.

[5] See the May 2019 report from the Belgian Superior Health Council ‘Physical Chemical Environmental Hygiene (Limiting Exposure to Mutagenic or Endocrine Disrupting Agents) And the Importance of Exposures Early in Life’ https://www.health.belgium.be/sites/default/files/uploads/fields/fpshealth_theme_file/190617_shc-9404_fys_chem_env_hygiene_vcabdem.pdf

The Mutualités Libres / Onafhankelijke Ziekenfondsen brings together four apolitical and dynamic Belgian health insurance funds. With more than two million members, Mutualités Libres is the third largest insurer in the country. Their ambition is to be a proactive and innovative healthcare player. More info at http://www.mloz.be

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is the leading not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects human health in the European Union (EU) and beyond. HEAL works to shape laws and policies that promote planetary and human health and protect those most affected by pollution, and raise awareness on the benefits of environmental action for health. Find out more on https://www.env-health.org/