Tech & Science

Calls to Ban Toxic Chemicals Fall on Deaf Ears Around the World

In the Magazine
A labourer rides on a tractor which sprays pesticide onto plants at a farm that supplies fresh produce to Wal-Mart in Narayangaon, about 180 km west of Mumbai September 27, 2012. Vivek Prakash/Reuters

When Denis Bibeyran was diagnosed at the age of 47 with bile tract cancer – a rare form of the disease usually found in men at least 20 years older than him – his sister Marie put it down to bad luck. Around the vineyards of Bordeaux, where they lived and worked, cancer among men his age was common and cancer of the bile tract not particularly unusual.

In 2010, less than 18 months later, Marie Bibeyran’s seven-year-old daughter started puberty. By the end of the year, her breasts had developed to a size normally associated with girls twice her age. Soon after her period started but her physical growth slowed almost to a standstill. Doctors diagnosed a classic case of precocious puberty, a hormonal disorder that causes early sexual development – unusual in otherwise healthy young girls, but not unheard of.

By then, Bibeyran had long since given up on luck. She began asking around and found that, among the usual ailments, a remarkable number of families in the area had similar stories of rare cancers, Parkinson’s disease and hormonal development disorders. At local schools, teachers were reporting an unprecedented rise in learning difficulties such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Looking for a link, she started researching the pesticides used in the vineyards and found that, amongst the hundreds routinely sprayed on the grape vines, there was a certain category of chemicals that were causing the scientific community particular concern.

Referred to collectively as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), they act by ­tampering with the hormonal system. Over the past two decades, a flurry of scientific studies from around the world has shown them to cause problems very similar to the kind she was seeing in her brother and her daughter.

EDCs are everywhere, found in cosmetics, preservatives, medicines and countless household products such as shampoos and toothpaste, which are used every day by billions of people across the world. Some, such as the pesticide DDT and the “anti-miscarriage” medication DES, were banned years ago, leaving a legacy of health and environmental problems in their wake. Many others are still in use, though exactly how many no one knows.

Now, for the first time anywhere in the world, the Europe Union (EU) is attempting to regulate endocrine disrupting chemicals, setting down criteria to define, identify and, where necessary, ban EDCs. Already, this is sending shockwaves through boardrooms across the world because companies selling their goods in Europe will be forced by law to comply. Everyday goods may be taken off the market; industry could lose ­billions. The emphasis is on the word “could” because the fightback has already begun. Already a year over deadline, the procedure has finally gone to public consultation, where it has met with uproar.

“The policy has been hijacked by industry,” says Axel Singhofen, the environment and health adviser for the Green Party European Free Alliance. “They seem to have forgotten the scientific roots of the problem and are much more concerned with appeasing business interests, whatever the costs to health and wildlife.”

According to Charles Sultan, a French endocrine scientist who has been working on studies into the effects of chemicals on health for more than two decades: “Development malfunctions and physical malformations in children and cancer, particularly of the reproductive organs, later in life, are the most prevalent issue. But there are more – we don’t even know about everything yet. The problems can appear decades or even generations after exposure.”

Many environmentalists had high hopes that the EU would show more determination. Responsibility was in the hands of the Directorate General (DG) Environment, the notoriously diligent arm of the European Commission responsible for environmental matters. Building the foundations of its policy was an international team of endocrinologists, headed by a leading expert in the field, Professor Andreas Kortenkamp. On commission by DG Environment, the scientists were to draw up a review of the existing science on the effects of EDCs on human health and wildlife, and map out policy options accordingly.

When Kortenkamp’s scientific review was published on DG Environment’s website in early 2012, its demands were clear. The chemicals, the review stated, should be treated with “concern equivalent to carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxicants”.

The effects on human health they noted were astonishing, with EDCs causing disorders as diverse as cancer and autism, genital mutation and obesity. On wildlife, it went even further: EDCs were reported to skew the gender ratios of species and there was “good evidence that wildlife populations have been effected, sometimes with widespread effects”. Levels of exposure were shown largely to be irrelevant, with even minute doses sometimes causing severe effects.

“What we know is that the toxicities of EDCs are extremely dangerous,” says Kortenkamp. “But there is still a lot we don’t know – we don’t know how every EDC works, whether there can be levels where it is safe, what damage it could cause or when it could cause it. The only safe approach to take is one of precaution.”

102969600 Health Scare: Safe cosmetics activists are putting pressure on large pharmaceutical companies, such as L'Oreal to stop using toxic chemicals like phthalate and triclosan, in personal care products Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

This is the line DG Environment took. By spring 2013, it had drawn up a strategy, calling for strict precautionary measures which would lead to a ban of any chemical, in any product, shown to be an EDC – at least until the science came forward to show them to be safe. Just before the policy was to be published, a draft was leaked. The industry immediately began its attack.

A group of 18 editors of toxicology journals sent an open letter to the Chief Scientific Advisor of the European Commission, trashing the policy for being “scientifically unfounded” and “defying common sense, well-founded science and risk assessment principles”. A closer inspection of the signees carried out by Environmental Health News last year showed all but one of them to have past or current ties to regulated industries, representing between them many of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers and industry groups.

The lead author, Daniel Dietrich, is a ­former adviser to an industry organisation that ­lobbies the EU over EDC regulation called the ­European Centre for Ecotoxicology and Toxicology of Chemicals. This organisation lists Syngenta, Bayer, Dow Chemicals and BP among its funders. Other signees have links to Monsanto, GlaxoSmithKline and the industry funded American Chemistry Council.

“Of course (the science) was going to be attacked,” says Kortenkamp. “As our review was to be the basis for Europe’s policy, we were out on a limb, an open invitation for industry to attack. They did exactly what you would expect them to do, manufacture doubt to buy themselves time. This is nothing new, the obvious comparison is with the climate change debate where 99% of the scientists agree and the appearance of controversy is engineered by a minority.”

Behind the closed doors of the European commission, a series of documents obtained by French journalist Stephane Horel show the industry lobbyists going into emergency mode. In June and July, the chemical industry lobby bombarded the European Commission with a stream of emails and position papers, all calling for a thorough reassessment of DG Environments’ ­strategy.

At the upper reaches of the European Commission, private meetings were held on an almost weekly basis between industry representatives and commissioners, according to the documents. National governments got on board, with the UK and Germany issuing a joint position paper calling for the inclusion of “potency considerations”, a loophole that Kortenkamp says would compel the EU to “cream off from the top the worst offenders and leave the rest of endocrine disruptors totally unregulated.”

Meanwhile, the US government persistently pointed out the problems EDC regulation would cause to EU–US trade relations. Then, in July 2013, months before the deadline for completing the policy,  on orders from the top of the European Commission, the regulation process was frozen and an impact assessment looking at the socio-economic effects of regulations was ordered, delaying the policy until 2015 at the ­earliest.

“We were ready with our strategy, but then we were blocked at every possible point. We could have been blocked, right from the top of the European Commission,” a senior source from DG Environment says. With the deadline passed, Sweden has initiated legal action against the EU for its delays, claiming “the Commission stops and stalls the work to phase out endocrine disruptors. It’s extremely serious”. France, ­Denmark and the Netherlands support Sweden.

It’s not surprising that pesticides and cosmetics industries are anxious. According to a spokesperson for the European Crop Protection Association, 40% of the market share of pesticides could potentially be lost to the regulations, meaning a loss of €8-9bn in just one sector.

L’Oreal is one of many cosmetics companies who have already come under fire over potential endocrine disruptors used in their hair products. Named on its list of ingredients are chemicals such as phthalates, which has already been banned in other products and is high on the list of those to be regulated in the strategy. The company has only recently refrained from using another dangerous chemical, triclosan.

L’Oreal, however, remains defiant. In response to questions, the company referred Newsweek to its website where it says: “Certain substances present in cosmetic products . . . have been the target of repeated attacks. However, no valid scientific study has yet confirmed that [these chemicals] give rise to adverse effects on human health.”

In 2009, less than a year after his diagnosis, Denis Bibeyran lost his fight with cancer. Two years later, armed with scientific evidence linking his death to the pesticides he had been exposed to for years while working at the vineyards, his sister Marie took the state support service for agricultural workers to court.

“I wanted to get recognition that my brother’s death was an occupational hazard, not a coincidence,” she says. “Nothing is paid in insurance to the people who fall ill after working on vineyards, as the state refuse to recognise in any way that pesticides and endocrine disrupting chemicals are linked to health.”

Three years on, the case has hardly moved in the judicial process, but, across France, other similar actions have started appearing in courts with increasing regularity. “It gives me hope to see others fighting this too,” Bibeyran says, “but what we’re up against is huge. The French government has corporate giants like Monsanto and Bayer weighing on them and if they admitted that their products caused cancer, even in one case, everything would begin to fall apart for these companies.”

Industry lobby­ists have their eyes on a bigger picture. The EU and US are currently negotiating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If passed, it would align technical regulations and approval procedures on either side of the Atlantic – freeing up the passage of goods between the EU and US from regulatory barriers and potentially boosting economies on both sides by hundreds of billions of euros. In practice, however, this would mean adjusting many European regulations to the lower standards imposed by the US.

“If TTIP is passed along the lines that have been released so far, the EDC regulations would be postponed even further or completely derailed,” says David Azoulay, an attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

“The TTIP would alter not just this case, but the fundamental mechanisms through which Europe regulates. The precautionary approach, which allows Europe to remove potentially dangerous products from the market until they are proved safe, could well be made completely toothless so as not to damage industry profits.”

This would put Europe in a similar position to the US where, even once a chemical has been proven to be dangerous, it is near impossible for the government to take it off the market.

“The stakes are particularly high on ­chemicals,” says Azoulay. “The chemical ­industry is very strong and the regulatory discrepancies between Europe and the US could cost it billions. And, all the time, society is watching them very carefully and with growing fear.”

If people are scared, they’re not showing it. Since the European public consultation on EDCs opened last month, only five people have logged in to give their opinion.

Marie Bibeyran knows she is fighting apathy but she also knows, “it is not us they are listening to . . . the EU has let its mind be made up by big ­business.”

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