Dialogue on the risks of endocrine disrupting chemicals
In the week leading to up to World Food Day on 16 October Initiatives of Change (IofC) Netherlands organised a series of events and meetings around the theme of food safety, adressing moral dilemmas around food, harmful substances and generic drugs. In this report you can read about the theme of harmful substances that was discussed. Read also the general report on the week ‘What is hidden behind everyday products’
When you touch a sales slip, heat up your evening meal in a plastic box in the microwave or put sunscreen on your body, you are exposed to substances called endocrine disrupting chemicals. By disrupting the endocrine system, these chemicals are related to numerous health problems, such as problems with reproduction, endocrine-related cancers, obesity and diabetes.
The increase of hormone-related diseases in many societies and growing scientific evidence on the risks of endocrine disruptors, urges us to question the widespread use of these substances. They are used in pesticides, packaging, cosmetics, personal care products and electronics. The World Health Organisation even called them a ‘global threat’ in their 2012 report on the subject.
But the European legislation that should regulate the use of endocrine disruptors and minimize the risks for society is delayed. The European Commission is still in the phase of formulating specific criteria on when a substance can be considered an endocrine disruptor. At the same time, many people are unaware of the existence of these chemicals and the risks they pose.
What actions can then be taken? This was one of the subjects during the week leading up to World Food Day 16 October, in which Initiatives of Change Netherlands organised a series of activities around the theme of food safety, addressing the moral dilemmas around food.
IofC, not being an expert itself on this matter, had brought together experts to exchange knowledge and experience and stimulate focused action under the flag of its programme Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy. During several closed meetings representatives from different organisations met to exchange insights on harmful substances and discuss options on how to address this challenge.
One of the conclusions of the week was that besides the political and legislative process, one of the most important tools to help phase out harmful substances is public awareness and consumer driven action. Also, further research is needed to identify substances of concern and learn more about the effects of endocrine disruptors, especially the effects in the long term and of simultaneous exposure to different substances.
A well-functioning endocrine system is essential for human health. Together with the nervous system it is an important information signal system for the body. It regulates the release of hormones that are essential for functions such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood and reproduction. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the functioning of this system, causing problems for human health, as well as for wildlife.
According to the WHO there are close to 800 chemicals that are suspected to be capable of negatively interfering with the endocrine system. Although only a few of them have been tested for this, the majority are used in everyday products. ‘Consumers often have a false idea of safety,’ says Tatiana Santos, chemist and policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, during one of the meetings. ‘People think everything you buy has been tested and proven safe, but this is not the case. It is therefore very important to inform people about endocrine disruptors.’
In Denmark the Ministry of Environment and Food has therefore launched different information campaigns, especially targeting pregnant women and nursing mothers, to inform them about the potential risks of chemicals, and giving practical advice on how to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals in daily life. Pregnant women are especially targeted, because during foetal development human beings are most vulnerable to exposure to EDCs. Also childhood and puberty are critical stages.
Consumers have the right to know, is also the conviction of Ingrid Franzon and Rishab Khanna, founders of EnvirohealthMatters, a Swedish NGO advocating a healthy environment. They are therefore developing Toxxscan, together with the The Ramazzini Institute and The Alliance for Natural Health. Toxxscan is an open interface to data of known chemical health risks. It will link to objective research and generate a colour code for every day products.
Not only will the database enable people to protect their own health, it will also help consumer driven action. Khanna: ‘The market is in itself immoral. Once we consumers take a stance about what we want, namely safe and tox free products, a market for this will be developed.’ But in order to do this consumers need a tool like Toxxscan.
There are already some tools consumers can use to inform themselves and make a stance, like the ToxFoxapp for cosmetics and an Avaaz-petition asking to stop the use of endocrine disruptors in the EU (see also attachment).
But to achieve change, everybody is needed, including industry. Toxxscan is therefore also being developed as a producer tool, to help small and medium sized enterprises substitute harmful chemicals. Franzon: ‘We believe that many small and medium sized companies don’t want to use harmful substances, but lack resources and knowledge to avoid this.’
‘It is important to get industry involved in the matter,’ says Ella Weggen, global health advocate at Wemos, a Dutch NGO advocating fair and coherent health policy and health equity worldwide, during one of the meetings. ‘We look for front runner companies that explicitly state that they are concerned about endocrine disruptors and ban known EDCs as much as possible from their products.’
Besides regulation and the involvement of consumers and industry, it is important that more research is done on the subject. Because, although it is possible to identify (and thus avoid) known hazardous chemicals, it doesn’t work the other way around: if a chemical is not known to be hazardous, it does not mean it is safe. It might just mean that this hasn’t yet been identified.
Because of this uncertainty about single substances and mixtures of substances, it is problematic to create a list with recommended products that are safe. The best advice to people therefore, one of the experts remarks, is to minimize exposure to chemicals in general.