01 May 1999 00:00 [Source: PCE]Teenagers often blame their latest bout of angst on their hormones. Now it is the turn of chemical company executives who are also suffering from hormonal stress. Grace Williams reports on the great endocrine debate
Industry experts are worried that customers may turn against chemicals that are suspected of upsetting the hormone systems of animals and humans. Endocrine disruptors have been accused of causing a vast range of problems, from crossed bills in arctic gulls to lower sperm counts in human males.
###7790###The issue is not new; it was widely publicised in Our Stolen Future, a popular science book published in 1996. However, the first European bans on specific chemicals are expected this year, with far-reaching implications for chemical producers.
In October, the European Commission is expected to publish a definitive list of suspect chemicals, which will then be tested for endocrine-disrupting properties. If the tests prove positive, chemicals could be banned throughout the EU in a matter of weeks. Yet chemical companies are worried that mere inclusion on the list may be enough to destroy sales.
'What we fear is that, when the list is published, there may be a lot of deselection of products; unnecessary deselection because the list is out,' says Rob Taalman of the European chemical industries council, Cefic.
Taalman is director of Cefic's Long-range Research Initiative on human health and the environment, and of its Endocrine Modulators Steering Group (EMSG), set up to coordinate European industry research. As such, he is in an ideal position to monitor the industry's anxiety level about endocrine disruptors.
There has been much concern from the sector groups (Cefic's specialist groups which research and lobby for specific chemical products) about deselection, because that immediately affects their markets, Taalman says.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) all seem to act by mimicking or interfering with the natural hormone (endocrine) systems of animals, and possibly humans. They can block or scramble the hormone messages which govern the animal's development, reproduction and the normal functioning of the body. They are claimed to have more serious effects on foetuses and young animals, since hormones are vital to development.
More than 50 chemicals or groups of chemicals are suspected of being EDCs. Many of them, such as the pesticides DDT and lindane, are already recognised as damaging and are banned or severely restricted. Others, however, such as alkyl phenol ethoxylates (used in industrial detergents), bisphenol-A (in metal food can linings, polycarbonate products and dental sealants) and some phthalates (plasticisers used to soften PVC), are found in a wide variety of products and represent a significant source of revenue to their producers.
Many scientists around the world have claimed links between reproductive difficulties in animals and exposure to synthetic chemicals. Gulls, panthers, beluga whales, polar bears and fish have all been said to have deformities, reproductive problems and odd sexual behaviour.
In 1992, Danish researcher Niels Skakkebaek published a study which showed human sperm counts to have declined by 42% between 1938 and 1990. This study, along with other evidence of reproductive disorders such as undescended testicles and testicular cancer, has been used to claim that chemical exposure is also affecting humans.
Because the issue includes so many different chemicals and so many different effects, any sort of scientific consensus has proved elusive. Yet at the 1991 Wingspread Conference in Racine, Wisconsin, US, scientists from varying disciplines around the world agreed that a large number of man-made chemicals which had been released into the environment at least had the potential to disrupt the endocrine systems of both animals and humans.
As is usual for environmental issues, the political debate has become polarised. Chemical producers advocate further research and stress that any restrictions should be based only on sound science. Meanwhile, environmentalists say enough evidence already exists, and that the precautionary principle should be applied to ban chemicals where there is evidence, conlusive or not, against them.
In the European Union, meanwhile, the issue has entered the political arena. DGXI, the environment directorate of the European Commission, has produced a policy draft on endocrine disrupters which was circulated for comment in early February.
The paper is expected to go to the Council of Ministers for discussion and formal adoption soon. It is not yet clear whether it will take the form of a white paper -normally a precursor to legislation - or a weaker communication. Environmentalists are lobbying for the white paper form.
If adopted by the Council of Ministers, the paper would then go to the European Parliament and its Environment Committee for comment. However, MEP elections take place this summer and lobbyists expect that nothing will be decided until at least mid-September. Environmentalists expect to undertake a massive re-education campaign for the newly-elected MEPs this autumn, Elizabeth Salter of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), says.
According to Salter, the WWF's international toxics coordinator, the draft paper acknowledges that endocrine disruption occurs and says that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in wildlife and humans should be avoided. Rather than naming particular chemicals, it says that the Commission will produce a list of potential endocrine disruptors for testing.
It is this proposed list which concerns Taalman. He says there are around 20 different lists of suspected EDCs being circulated, produced by various bodies such as the Danish and Japanese state environmental protection agencies. By the end of May, the Commission plans to hold a workshop with all interested parties to agree criteria for priority chemicals; those EDCs which should be tested first. The criteria, including production volume or the use of the chemical, for example, will then be used to draw up a list of lists and to rank chemicals as high, medium or low priority. Meanwhile, testing methods are being developed in a process supervised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Testing could start from October, once the list of lists is published. Bans or restrictions could be imposed without further legislation, Taalman believes. Although there is currently no specific EU legislation on EDCs, existing law on the marketing and use of chemicals could be invoked. Meanwhile, a Europe-wide regulation on phthalate plasticisers could be developed. Several EU members have already brought in restrictions on phthalate use in PVC childrens' toys, fearing that the chemicals can cause harm when the toys are sucked. European Commissioner Emma Bonino has been a leading voice in the campaign for an EU-wide ban.
The phthalates story highlights the chemical industry's relative impotence once an EDC issue with emotional appeal is taken up by environmental groups and politicians. Even though the scientific evidence for the endocrine-disrupting effects of phthalates was uncertain, several countries went ahead with bans without waiting to be further convinced.
Taalman admits: 'The decisions are not following the science. We tried to support the products by supplying the necessary scientific information, and that is a strategy that has not worked for the toys issue.'
A second focus of attention in recent months has been on bisphenol-A. Research by Fred vom Saal of the University of Missouri, US, has shown abnormalities in mice foetuses exposed to minute quantitites of the chemical. Controversially, vom Saal has also claimed a low-dose effect which disappears when the dose is increased, contrary to the whole basis of toxicology theory.
Several repeat studies have been carried out, but so far no-one has replicated vom Saal's work, Taalman says. A Toxicology Forum conference in Washington, US, in April will be entirely devoted to expert analysis of the low-dose effect. Taalman says he hopes to organise a similar event in Europe later this year in collaboration with the European Commission's consumer affairs directorate.
Looking ahead, potential threats to chemical producers appear to be of two types - product deselection and substitution, as anticipated by Taalman, and the resources that will need to be devoted to the testing process. Under current EU plans, EDC testing would be carried out by the companies responsible for producing the chemicals. The cost is impossible to predict until the list of chemicals and the approved testing methodologies are defined.
Environmentalists plan to intensify their campaigns; the WWF is calling for immediate action on chemicals such as alkyl phenol ethoxylates, which the group says are known to be endocrine-disrupting. The environmental groups are hoping to develop the public's awareness of endocrine disruption as a whole issue, rather than the substance- specific campaigns seen so far. Salter says: 'It's something that the WWF is going to address in the very near future,' though she will not give details.
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