Endocrine Disrupters: All this... For that?

Pauline Tawil

Yesterday was one of those days for Commissioner Andriukaitis; a day where he finds himself defending the Commission’s position on endocrine disrupters*(ED) in front of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Yesterday was a little bit more special than usual though as he came with the long-awaited proposed ED criteria. Heated exchanges were expected. All the protagonists were in the room, ready to play their part. Mr. Poc for the S&D, Mrs. Grossetête for the EPP, Mrs. Girling for ERC and Mr. Eickhout for the Greens. They all came and told our Commissioner what they thought of his criteria. Spoiler alert! They are not happy.

And then something a little strange happened. Commissioner Andriukaitis told them he was “happy” – happy to see that no one really agreed with the Commission’s proposal. He saw the absence of consensus as the sign that we are all moving in the right direction.

Are we really?

I could not say from a scientific or safety perspective. I am no toxicologist or risk assessor. Yet, I would like to share a few observations on how we got and how, despite what he says, we may not be moving in the right direction as far as public decision making is concerned.

The EU relies on the capacity to reach compromises. All parties have to agree to make some sacrifices. In return they gain something, preferably more valuable than what they gave up. In a perfect world everyone is happy, to a certain extent at least.

Reality could not be more different when it comes to ED. Shortly after the publication of the proposal, reactions piled up. Industry, NGOs and Members of the European Parliament, all rapidly issued statements expressing their disappointment. Cefic and their partners regretted the absence of potency while NGOs such as ChemSec and HEAL – and a number of MEPs – blamed the Commission for disregarding the possibility to categorise ED and limiting the observation of adverse effects to human health. In short, NGOs blamed industry lobbying, industry blamed NGOs and both criticised the European Commission.

All this… for that? Years of debate (both at scientific and political level), a legal case brought before the European Court of Justice against the European Commission, and no one is happy.

Could things have been different? My answer is yes. A better outcome could have probably been reached provided all parties had behaved a bit differently.

Let’s start with industry. The chemical industry and its partners underestimated the political and emotional ramifications of this debate. Science is critical of course. Public decisions must rely on solid data and scientific knowledge. Still, as much as some may dislike it, values and in this case emotions also play a role in decision making. This is called politics. If you don’t play the game, get out of your comfort zone and engage, you cannot win. It does not mean one has to agree with all claims and allegations, but one must enter the debate, answer questions decision makers ask and prepare for a negotiation. It is all the more important when the agenda is set by your opponents, as it was the case here.

NGOs… Are we allowed to criticize them? I think so, in particular in this dossier. NGOs who engaged on ED played their role perfectly. They raised awareness, set the political agenda and turned an obscure scientific issue into a societal debate – as they should do. They may however have gone too far from time to time using (creating?) fears that make it all the more difficult for public authorities to take serene decisions.

Finally, a few words about the scientific community, both an actor and a tool in this debate. The “fight” between toxicologists and endocrinologists has certainly played an important role in this dossier. The first ones defended their own corner against the new kids on the block advocating for a new approach of toxicology. Eventually some consensus was found, in particular on the question of potency. Still, it took a long time and their opposition deeply shaped the debate I believe, also at policy level.

Put all these ingredients together and what do you get? A “dead end” debate, with everyone standing on its positions and making it almost impossible to reach a good compromise.

This is not the end of the story of course. The proposal will now go to the European Parliament and Member States. And if they oppose it (the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee will most likely do), the end is nowhere to be seen.

One can only hope that one day someone reminds everyone that the point of all this is to make a decision that would actually protect people’s health and the environment – not stick to stubborn positions of principle that make you look good.

I know, this is most likely wishful thinking. Well, hope springs eternal!


*Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are substances that alter the functions of the hormonal system and consequently cause adverse effects to humans and/or to the environment.